The Inspiration Box

 

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A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I would spend a couple of hours, one Saturday, doing a short writing workshop with her son and some of his friends. He had been very enthusiastic when I’d visited his class, during a school author visit a month or two earlier, and he and his friends wanted some tips on writing.

I had a think about how to structure the workshop, and decided that it would be best to keep it practical. We’d have a look at story arcs, and then focus on where to get inspiration from. I had a look round the house and, doing so, realised that my inspiration for stories comes from lots of different places. The inspiration for my first book, ‘the Secret of the Wooden Chest’, had come from a bronze Roman pendant, when I started wondering what the original owner of the pendant had been like. The inspiration for as-yet-unpublished stories that had followed, had included some deer that lived in local woodland, a statue outside a local school, and a Halloween costume. I realised that sometimes you just need a little prompt to get the idea for a story, and I set about making an ‘Inspiration Box’.

I found a small, pretty box and filled it with the following things –

An interesting shell,

An ammonite fossil,

A small mirror,

An old key,

A ring,

A little clock,

A foreign coin,

A piece of polished amethyst,

A button,

A shiny stone,

A piece from a jigsaw,

And an exotic-looking, lidded pot that I’d bought, years ago, in India.

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The dog watched in fascination as I filled the box with all kinds of bits and pieces. Surely at least some of them would be edible, he suggested. Would I like him to have a chew at them all, one by one, to find out? I declined, but he pressed his case. It was really no trouble at all, he assured me, snatching up the jigsaw piece and running off behind the chair with it.

Once I’d manage to catch him and regain full control of the contents of the box, I had a good look at all the things I’d gathered. Who knew what stories could come out of all these intriguing things, but it got me thinking, straight away. What kind of beach had the shell come from? It might have come from a desert island, silently waiting for its first castaway. Had the button been lost by a spy? If so, it might have a secret formula engraved on it, in writing so tiny that you would need a magnifying glass to read it. What door did the old key open, and was someone trapped in a locked room behind it, locked in centuries ago, as an awful punishment for an equally terrible crime? Did the mirror have the power to magically transport  you into another world, or would it allow you to see the last person who looked into it? Which country was the foreign coin from, and what exotic item could be bought with it, at that country’s local market? Had the amethyst ever been set into a princess’s crown, and, if so, how had it been lost? Did the mysterious pot contain fairy dust, or gold, or was it maybe something more spine-tingling; a piece of mummy-wrapping perhaps, or a crumpled-up ancient parchment on which was written a terrible curse?

Suddenly, I had more story ideas than I knew what to do with.

Once I’d done the workshop, I carefully put away the notes that I’d prepared for it, but I didn’t put away the inspiration box. Having made it, this was something that I knew I’d use again; not just for any future workshops, but also for myself. So now, whenever ‘Writer’s block’ strikes, I pick up the inspiration box (being careful to keep it well away from the dog). Who knows what story might come out of it next…

 

 

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There’s no time like snow time!

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A couple of weeks ago, my Sunday lie-in was interrupted at six thirty in the morning by the dog, who was screaming his head off, downstairs. I leapt out of bed and rushed down – was he ill, in pain, had he got his head caught on something? I could tell by the urgency in his high-pitched voice that something serious had happened. When I arrived in the kitchen, I gave him a quick look-over, but strangely he didn’t seem ill and the screaming had stopped. There was, however, a wild gleam in his eyes, and he was jumping up and down in a frenzy of excitement, giving occasional well-aimed kicks to the back door. He wanted to go out. I opened the back door and we both stepped outside. Aah, now it all made sense – it had snowed overnight.

Being a Tibetan Terrier, the dog is extremely keen on snow. With his thick, fur coat keeping the cold and damp away from his skin, and the fur between the pads on his feet forming natural snow-boots, he is in his element in the winter. Snow is definitely his favourite weather, but this was the first time he’d seen it for almost three years. He was completely beside himself with delight, and prancing up to me, he immediately proposed a snow-eating contest. I declined to take part, but watched as he tried to shovel as much snow into his mouth as possible. As I looked at him enjoying himself, I puzzled over how he had known that snow had fallen; he couldn’t see out of the window from his bed in the kitchen, and anyway, it was still dark. Could he smell it? Maybe, but however he knew, it was fair to say that he was pretty pleased about it.

Seeing the snow for the first time in such a long time, made me think about how difficult it can be to describe weather and give a feel for the correct season, when writing. Of the books I’ve written so far (one published, another soon to be published, and several still sat in the drawer), two have very clear seasons; one is set during a hot summer and another takes place at Halloween. When I was writing those two, I found it quite difficult to make sure that the reader would be able to get a feel for the weather and the time of year. For the summer book, I tried to evoke the season by talking about the flowers, buzzing bees, the heat of the sun, etc., and in the Halloween book I talked a lot about the chilly wind, the falling leaves swirling around, and thick coats and gloves. But it seemed hard to get it right. The problem, was that it was spring time when I wrote the summer book, and summer when I wrote the Halloween one. When I re-read them both later in the year, I realised that there was a lot more I could have included, if I’d waited until the right time of year to write it. For instance, in the summer I noticed how dusty my feet got when I walked around outside all day in sandals, and at Halloween it struck me how all the shops were filled with chocolates covered in orange foil, and plastic spiders, alongside stacks of tubs filled with ‘trick or treat’ sweets. I hadn’t included either of these things in the books, and a lot of other details, besides.

Obviously you can’t always wait until the right time of year to write a story, and what about those stories and books that take place over a long period of time, and might span more than one year, let alone several seasons? As I stood shivering in my dressing gown in the dark, snowy garden, with the dog dancing ecstatically around my ice-trimmed slippers, I realised that I need to start writing this stuff down in a notebook. So now I have a weather notebook, divided into four sections; one for each season. And my new year’s resolution? Not to leave it in the ‘big pile of notebooks’, but to fill it in as the year goes along, with notes and comments about the little details of the weather and the seasons. That way, next time I write a story set at a particular time of year, I can refer back to it, get into the feel of the season, and I’ll be all set to go!

In the mean-time the snow has, sadly, melted, and the dog has gone back to having a lie-in at the weekends, like the rest of us. If he’s lucky, he’ll see some more snowy weather before the winter ends. But if he does, I’ll be right next to him out there in the garden, writing it all down, as the flakes settle on the tops of our heads. Next time I write a story set in winter, I’ll be ready for it!