Do you like seeing faces in clouds? It’s one of my favourite occupations, cloud-watching. And the other evening, two characters emerged from the blueness of the evening sky over my house in Transylvania.
Do you see them? The white cloud is a fat-faced chap with a bristly moustache, a blobby nose, untidy hair, a double chin and droopy cheeks. His right eye is closed.
Next to him is his blue-faced wife, who’s smiling broadly, her sharp teeth just showing, her sharp nose poking from her chubby cheek, her eyebrows raised and her eyes crinkled up.
Not the most handsome couple, but there they are.
That’s what I see, anyway. I could tell you more about them – where they come from, how old they are, their background, even what they like to have for breakfast. I have an idea what she’s grinning about, and what his expression’s for.
But I’d like you to find out for yourself. Why not write their story? If you feel so inclined, post it here as a comment – I’d love to know what you see…
It’s St Valentine’s Day tomorrow – 14th February – the day which has been colonised and commercialised by the hazy notion of romance. If you don’t spend, you don’t care, and if you’re not in a couple you’re nowhere and nothing. If you feel alone – even if you’re at the centre of a busy family – then the fuss around this one winter’s day can be overwhelming, making you feel worse than ever.
BUT…. turn it to your advantage! Make imagination your friend instead of your enemy, and write yourself out of those lonely feelings. Leap out of the round-and-round whirlpool of miserable feelings and leap into the limitless worlds of possibility in your imagination. Spend the day (which is, rather conveniently, a Sunday this year) writing furiously, inventing, exploring, what-iffing.
Use Valentine’s Day as a prompt, if you like. Write Mr Right… or Mr Wrong. Write your perfect romance, or the nightmare romance. Not everything that happens on 14th February is lovely – remember the St Valentine’s Day Massacre – Chicago 1929. How could murder happen on this most loving of days?
Use your feelings, feed them into your powerful imagination, and create something great with the force of love behind it. Wherever that takes you.
The whole process of travel – on public transport, not in a car – is fraught with opportunity for storytellers.
Four flights and two train journeys in three days have made me think about the possibilities for mystery, murder, suspense and romance in the confusion of airports and stations.
Alfred Hitchcock made the most of trains in several movies, and there is the glorious example of The Lady Vanishes. Arthur Haley’s Airport, milked the drama of air travel, and the spoof Airplane! and its sequels milked the comedy potential… to the very last drop. We already have a long list of travellers’ tales, but there is plenty of scope for the rest of us.
Love and death
Think of the numbers of people at any one moment in a big airport. Staff and travellers must add up to tens of thousands of people on the move; a clever murderer could kill and get away with it, even with the hundreds of cameras watching every twitch and grimace.
The romance of two people in transit, a fleeting encounter, infinite futures… the potential is limitless. An airport sees people from everywhere in the world; the poor and the rich, the celebrated and the anonymous – crossing paths in limbo, where so much is out of their control.
Airports are ideas factories. Ferries, too. The best time to watch is in the early hours, where travellers wait for hours, too tired to pretend, sleepy, out of sorts, too hot or too cold, bored and frustrated. One can spend happy hours dreaming up their stories, earwigging on their monosyllabic conversations, wondering what if and what next.
Next time you fly, give yourself extra time between connections to watch, listen and dream.
1. The 10th anniversary of a murder. Woman was stabbed while walking to a restaurant to meet her fiancé. Man was convicted and put away, but it was the wrong man. The murderer goes back to the restaurant to celebrate his victory. Who else is there?
2. A woman invites all her exes to dinner on 14th Feb by telling them, in the Valentine’s card invitations, that she is dying. Who turns up? What happens?
3. A man hides a diamond ring in a fairy cake, puts it on a plate with six others, and serves it to his girlfriend as Valentine’s dessert. He asks her to choose. No ring, no proposal. How does she react?
4. I typed the date 14th Feb, by mistake, as 114th Feb. Made me wonder where it might be 114th Feb, and what St Valentine might be known for there.
5. An old woman looks out of the attic window on Valentine’s Day and sees a man outside the house; he has a dog on a string by one hand, and a huge bunch of red roses in the other. She rushes downstairs. Why?
6. There’s a Valentine’s Day competition running in CID, with a prize of two hundred quid for the fastest arrest. What’s it all about?
Plot v character
These are plot ideas. None of them grab me and make me want to know more*. Why is that?
For me, plot comes from character, rather than the reverse. I meet a character – see someone from the train, or bump into them in a cafe, or stand behind them in a lift. They catch my attention, and I start speculating. Who? Where? How? Who else? What next? What if?
As my festering imagination whirrs into operation I discover little things about them. They’re scared of balloons, or they make marmelade, or they have an aunt who’s 103. Each little quirk or quality pushes me off on another round of speculation until there’s a germ of a story. Often the story doesn’t make itself obvious until a second character turns up, either in reality, or in my head. An unlikely couple, or an all-too-likely couple. A line of dialogue, a gesture, their body language.
What’s missing from all those ideas is any real character. As such, they’re just ten-a-penny ideas which I don’t really care about. Characters, once alive in your head, will start kicking. All you have to do is follow them and watch the story unfold.
*Except I want the woman made to choose a cake to pick up the plate and shove the cakes into her boyfriends face – and make him eat the ring.
How did you do? Did ideas flood into your writer’s mind, or did you get stuck?
I’ll time myself and see how I do in 60 seconds – I have no idea…
1. er… blank brain.
1. 20 secs gone…
1. 35 secs…
1. 45 secs…
1. Next door neighbours, boy and girl both called Valentine
2. too late…
It’s not easy. I’m usually full of them, but under pressure, when you’re challenged to think of ideas then and there, the mind goes blank. My mind goes blank.
The only idea I produced was a true fact – a couple who lived in our village were both called Valentine. They were married for ever, so something worked. But as an idea for a novel, it’s weaker than my will in the face of cheesecake.
Ideas don’t usually come to order, at least when the thinking brain is in control. When the left (thinking) brain is distracted or ignored, the right (creative) brain lets loose. I’ll see what pops up as the day goes on, when I’m cooking lunch or booking my flight home.
I need someone to do my thinking for me, so my imagination can run away with itself.
Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is hard to ignore.
So use it. Use everything – the romance, the excitement, the dread, the loneliness, the togetherness or isolation… all those powerful feelings and how they make us behave. Fiction heaven.
In sixty seconds, scribble down half a dozen story ideas revolving around 14th February. [I’ll do my list in a minute, and post it later.]
How easy was that?
Did you make the one-idea-every-ten-seconds challenge? I’d love to see your list if you’d post it as a comment…
If your brain froze and you couldn’t think of a single idea, then perhaps mid-February is the ideal time for you to spend a day unlocking your ideas factory so you never have a creative shortage again.
It’s the day to seduce your imagination. Give in to your creative urges. Make love to your Muse. Pull up those fictional wallflowers and plant red roses. Bare your breast to Cupid’s arrow and fall in love with your own imagination.
Whether you yearn to write passion-fuelled crime, zingy love stories, gothic romances, out-of-this-world fantasy, medieval bodice-rippers or heart-stopping horror, this is where you’ll discover the key to creating your best-selling idea.
Book now! Start your writer’s heart racing… make this your year.