Where do you get your ideas from must be the question that most puzzles the non-creative. I watched a programme recently featuring a female artist whose technical skill is taxidermy – Polly Morgan. The works of art she creates have a strange quality as they are a mixture of the dead bird or animal and her setting of it. Not pieces I had thought I would like, but I was wrong. They are in many cases both beautiful and mysterious.
The natural world is not simply animals. Place, the sense of a place is a strong prompt for me. My first ever published story was inspired by an over-grown garden just up the road. I took several photographs of the laundry at a big house outside Manchester and they have evoked story-lines and characters in ways I didn’t foresee, but wasn’t surprised by. There was a shiver of recognition when I walked around. I wrote about the photos, below at Pictures.
Many writers have made natural features the basis or even the star of their output. I’m thinking of a moor – Wuthering Heights; a built environment – Sex In The city; a county – Dorset in Thomas Hardy; a river – the Thames in much of Dickens – to name a few. You’ll have your own ideas and your own favourites.
As a late teen and young adult, I was enthralled by the quiet fiction of Black Isle author, Jane Duncan. She wrote a long series of books with titles starting, My Friend… Even as I write, phrases and scenarios from those books pop into my head. I’ve always been delighted to visit Scotland’s Black Isle in a vain attempt to spot the fictional places in the real world.
My recent guest, Kate Blackadder used her knowledge of Scotland’s far north west for the fictional background of Family At Farrshore. Ian Rankin has Edinburgh, Michael Malone Glasgow, Chris Longmuir, Dundee. Regency writers use London, but also Bath. American writers have long exploited the far south – William Faulkner, New York – many, the West – many more and Theodore Dreiser used Chicago.
In many cases, the writer leaves the reader with the belief that the story could not have taken place anywhere else. In lots of the stories the nature prompts or causes the events to the extent it is a character in the work. Think about the hot, hot summers lived in a NY brownstone or southern slave hut. Walk the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s old town in a gale. Are these weathers malevolent? Struggle through a London fog. Listen to the fog horn on a battered cliff-edge. Think how the writer is heightening your emotional experience by making you live through physical discomfort.