I compare writing to stepping on a rollercoaster. There is, certainly, a similarity in the emotional impact.
I’ve read and re-read many books about writing but I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to do it and everyone has their own style and approach. Some people are extremely well organized, often to an OCD extreme. They prepare their space, gather their pencils or pens and stacks of paper in loose leaves or refill pads; some use old typewriters.
Many set themselves a timetable, allotting a specific length of each day to sit at a desk, staring at a blank page, waiting for inspiration. Others take the ‘there’s no such thing as an empty page, only empty thoughts’ approach. This involves in writing anything and everything, until something clicks and the bones or frame of a story begin to appear. At its worst, this conjures images of Jack Nicholson typing ‘all work and no play…’
At its best, there is a lot in its favour. Once you start writing, the mind is stimulated and things do begin to appear, much of which you might discard later on but at least you’re writing, like taking your imagination for a walk. It’s exercise.
Story ideas can come from anywhere so the writer’s mind must be like one of those ‘dreamcatcher’ nets, the kind of thing you see in those shops full of crystals, stones and old bones, they tell you were designed and used by tribal shamen to capture and interpret dreams. So, if you’re a writer, catch a dream and turn it in to a story.
It could start with a character, someone you know or have heard of, who intrigues you or perhaps it’s an incident you’ve heard of, maybe involving someone you know, have read about or encountered. All these things act as triggers for the imagination. So that when you start writing a description of a person you’ve encountered or a snippet of conversation you’ve had or overheard, then you think of a scenario or an incident that intrigued you and, suddenly, that character you were writing about, walks right into it and it feels good, because it fits. Now you’re sucking diesel.
I’ve had characters running around in my head for years, seeking a home, a plot, a story. Flann O’Brien gave these aimless characters a home in his more surrealistic novels as they began to take over his stories and rebel against his plot lines, displacing themselves, going missing, interfering and invading other story lines. Kurt Vonnegut Jr did that too. Tom Robbins and many other writers have taken a stab at it, too.
Essentially, there are no rules because a story’s a story. And therein lies the rub, if it’s not a story, why would you read it?
There have been story lines in my head, too that I could never find a home for or characters to live in them. My novel, TITO’s DEAD began life as a short story, about a young Kosovan refugee, living in Dublin, who befriended an injured pigeon and nursed it back to health. That simple act of kindness for an injured creature, earned him respect, for himself and from those who watched him. It made me wonder why, without that simple act, we couldn’t see he was injured, too?
About that time, when I began to formulate the story of Tito, there was a news incident about a truck full of dead immigrants being found in Wicklow, on the road from Wexford where they’d been smuggled in to Ireland, via Rosslare, from the Continent. The Balkan conflicts were in the news all the time and Ireland, like many other European countries, was awash with displaced people from warzones like Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The unfortunates in the truck, I remember, were Turkish Kurds, traced back to a small mountain village by a newspaper colleague of mine.
The plight of refugees and illegal immigrants began to preoccupy me. There was talk of Albanian gangs muscling in to certain inner city districts, displacing the old guard of native criminals. There were occasional clashes between these opposing parties, reported. I had a friend in the army who performed ‘peacekeeping’ duties with IFOR (Implementation Force), the multinational NATO group set up to implement the Daytona Agreement in Bosnia Herzegovina, between 1995 and 1996. Another friend, an Irish police detective, spent a year on secondment in Kosovo, helping to reorganize the civilian police services there. They had interesting stories to tell.
At the same time in Ireland, there appeared to be a lot of money in circulation and with money comes crime. People were having a good time, spending and enjoying their new wealth, it was a party. And that party was fuelled my mountains of drugs, supplied by the burgeoning crime gangs and their drug lords who were given curious nicknames like ‘The General’ and ‘Fatso’, and many others.
So I locked myself away in a small farmhouse in county Clare and let loose the hounds of imagination, howling in my head. Within five days I had written 25,000 words and TITO’S DEAD was no longer a notion in my head, it had a life of its own.