At Riverside Writers, we set a monthly writing challenge which encourages participants to create a new poem or short story to a set theme. This theme might be inspired by a curious photograph, (such as a recent one which depicted a woodland tree with a large collection of ladies' shoes nailed to it). Or the theme might be generated by each participant writing a random word, (such as piano, marshmallow, axe, tutu, gorilla), on a scrap of paper, and the resulting group of words all have to be used within the new piece of writing. You could do something similar by yourself, just by opening a dictionary or a child’s alphabet book at random and using the first word your finger lands on, then repeating this process several times. Another method is to present the group with a sentence which must be used to start or finish the new piece.
The results of these exercises can be fun to hear, certainly. Everyone always comes up with something which is unique. Also, imagination and innovation have been stimulated. People are coaxed to explore ideas which they perhaps might not have otherwise thought of. It’s only by practising writing skills that they’ll improve, and this is a great way to do this. Think about it: do these exercises once a month, and by the end of a year you’ll have twelve stories which you wouldn’t have otherwise written. Do this for two years, and you’ll have the basis for a book of short fiction.
Writers are always told “Write what you know.”
To that I’d add “Write what you’re interested in.”
My own interests revolve around the arts, philosophy and metaphysics, history especially ancient history, folklore and fantasy realms. I’ve also an interest in local history, and am fortunate to live in an area which has a rich heritage from its Celtic, Viking and Roman settlers. All of this features heavily in my work, such as with Seagull Inn, (which has just been accepted for publication). This story is set on nearby Hilbre Island, and offers the reader a considerable slice of local history.
The two characters which appear in this tale will appear in the novel which I intend to begin writing within the next few weeks. Various ideas for this novel have been floating around my head for months already, while I’ve been completing other writing projects. Ideas can begin with an overall theme of location or circumstance, or with a particular character, or from a combination of these.
Characters can begin to formulate in several ways, for me. Perhaps it’s a personality type which I wish to use. For example, several of my main characters are artists and craftsmen. Having attended art school for three years, plus done pottery courses and worked as a potter, I can draw on this as direct knowledge of the subject. Or perhaps the physical appearance of someone catches my eye (while walking the dogs, websurfing, etc) and I’ll find myself weaving the first strands of a story about them within my own head.
Daydreaming can be a very powerful tool for generating story ideas. Be aware of your daydreams’ subject matter. Every writer should always carry a notebook to catch ideas before they can flit away. And never throw your notebooks out!
I use character charts, with photos, sketches or cartoons, to build up the whole, complete personality, background, history, appearance, likes and dislikes, quirks etc. This keeps data from getting distorted from one story to the next, as I have an interest in using characters several times. As a reader, one of my pet hates is, for eg., having a character say they hate coffee, only to catch them drinking it a few chapters later. Maybe their tastes have changed, but if so the reader needs to know that. With minor characters, particularly if they’re in a short story, I won’t bother to generate much information about - but with major characters, I know their life history!
A writer begins by getting on with writing.
That might sound trite, but it’s true. If you wait for inspiration, for some dazzling “Ah-ha!” moment, then you’ll be waiting for a long time. Stop thinking about your marvellous life as a writer, stop faffing around doing endless research, stop talking about writing to impress your dining companions – and get words written. Finish the project, even if you think it is rubbish. Then put the project to one side while you write another one. Come back to the first, and re-write/edit it. Don’t be too precious about editing.
An oft-quoted writer’s guide: “Only the dog should see your first draft.”
In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggested that there are three way to write a book. One is to first plan absolutely every detail of each chapter. The second is to plan nothing at all, just begin writing and see what happens. The third way lands somewhere between these two.
My way is the latter of these. If I planned everything absolutely, I would have explored the idea already and possibly be too interested in the next idea to finish the project. If I planned absolutely nothing, rambling to no particular purpose might become a trap. So, as I’ve described already, I begin playing around with ideas in my imagination – ideas of place, characters, mood, theme etc. – and from these daydreams emerge plots, scenarios, more-rounded characters. After that, it’s a case of sitting at the computer and getting on with the physical task of writing.