“What’s that man doing, Mummy?”

There have been times when, stuck for inspiration but desperate to keep the wheels turning, I’ve turned to a something that I’m interested in to use as the starting point for a story. This has happened more than once. Want to hear about stories you’ll never read by an author you’ve never heard of? Read on.

Twitch was a story about enmity between a pair of birdwatchers, and was set among the towering reedbeds of the Tay Estuary near where I grew up (I still think they’d make a great location for an eerie story). I like birdwatching but the trigger for this was a visit, deliberately in search of something to spark a story, to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. At the time there was a huge diorama on the ground floor, of stuffed animals that had once roamed Scotland. One of the birds, stalking through a small forest of dead reeds, was a purple heron. This became the focus of my story. However, a friend helpfully told me that the story’s end was telegraphed pages in advance (thanks Steve) and on reflection, the story never took wing (sorry). The use of something I knew and cared about stifled any hope of bringing the characters to life. It remains unpublished, as lifeless as the exercises in taxidermy that inspired it.

Nicholson, Wood, Wallis was probably both the zenith and nadir of my self-indulgence, and cautioned me forever off using a personal interest as the germ of a story. There’s nothing wrong with writing about something you like, but it shouldn’t be the onlie begetter, and shouldn’t be at the expense of what makes a story breathe. The story was, as the Ronseal title makes clear, about the St. Ives artists, and specifically the day in 1928 when Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood (ironically, themselves artists in search of inspiration) happened across the amateur – “primitive” – painter Alfred Wallis.

The story, then, was a dramatization of a real event, and it tried to do all sorts of clever things with time, projecting into the artists’ near-future and destabilising their present. It fell to pieces: literally, because I cut pages up to re-order the paragraphs. But what worked for William Burroughs didn’t work for me. Nonetheless I remain secretly fond of Nicholson, Wood, Wallis while being at the same time deeply embarrassed by it. The story had no point and achieved nothing a good blog post couldn’t have done, with better economy.

I’ve written several stories which used professional cycling (another interest) as a scaffold. Again, the stories were without purpose. They circled slowly inwards, dragged down by the weight that my interest in cycling – and the imparting of information about that sport – imposed on the story. They weren’t about cycling per se (in the way that Tim Krabbe’s peerless The Rider is); they were about the characters’ love of cycling and, really, about my own love of cycling.

That, I think, is the problem which connects the stories I’ve mentioned. They all owed their existence to a personal interest, and never managed to achieve any distance from it. That distance is needed for a story to become something that another person would find value in.

Such exercises – for that is all they are – are fine, as long as you recognise them as such. They are warm-ups, primers, stretches; they are the clearing of your throat. But to foist them on other people? That’s like flashing.


photo credit: Jamie Gorman

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