Building Stories: Where do they come from?

I’m endlessly fascinated by how a story is made; how much of it is fact and how much is fiction.

I’ve written many stories over the last two years and there really isn’t a single process to the writing of a story, not for me anyway. Some have been born from writing exercises. You know the sort: look at a photograph, or an old postcard, or a painting. Now write in response. Go! Or, think of a childhood place, object or smell. Now write in response. Go! Such exercises are incredibly useful. They get your pen moving at the beginning of a writing session, and often lead to an idea for a short story, a poem, even a novel.

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.

Ray Bradbury

Some of the stories I’ve written have been in response to conversations in café’s, both ones in which I’ve participated and ones I’ve overheard. Public transport is also good hunting ground for stories. I collect ideas for stories and characters when I’m out and about like a magpie, and other people’s conversations have been a starting point for a fair few fictions. I’m one of those privileged souls who people open up to. Complete strangers just tell me their ‘stuff’. It’s awesome. But, rarely do I just facsimile stories from real life. It gets filed away and used for later, often getting mixed up in my imagination on the way until it’s something new.

Some stories arrive fully formed in my head; I simply have to write them down. Those are few and far between – unfortunately.

The story I had published in Headland, the new literary journal, ‘Single Mothers Are Easy’, was a mix of these. We’d done a writing exercise with the writer Janice Galloway as part of a masterclass. The task was to write a description of the door to our house. The point of difference was that we had to take our time and go into minute detail. Homework was to develop this description into a story or scene. We were given suggestions: maybe you were returning to the house after a funeral or a wedding? Maybe you were scared? Who are you with? Can you create a particular mood as you reach the door?

That weekend, I lay in bed in the quiet of the early hours and thought about my description. I thought about my children and I thought about a wedding. Then I began a fantasy that featured a single mother and her attempt to go on a date. In reality, I did have a blind date go wrong, as it did in the story, a long time ago, but it wasn’t quite the same. But, more importantly, the story gave me a chance to write about my children and being a mother, something I’d wanted to do for a long time. The character in the story isn’t me, not at all, but we share aspects of life, like the loneliness that is very much a part of raising children alone. I got up out of bed that Saturday, and by lunchtime the story was written: a first draft in its entirety. I’ve only tweaked and rewritten at sentence level since.

Other stories are years in the making. For example, the story I had published in Turbine, ‘The Fisherman‘.

Now, that story is an eclectic hotchpotch if ever there was one. First, I wrote a poem many years ago, maybe six or more, about seeing a photograph of a man when he was young and how vital and handsome he looked compared to thirty years later. I always liked that poem, but knew it didn’t really work. It was too heavy on sentimentality and too light on poetics. Not long after, I wrote a short story about a man in his seventies finding a woman crying outside a church. He tries to help her, but everyone, including the woman, thinks he has a sexual agenda. The point is that he doesn’t. I wish I’d made it work as a story, but I didn’t know enough about craft back then. It still hasn’t reached its potential, but the same two characters are in The Fisherman. In the original story, there’s a moment where she seems attracted to him sexually, despite the age gap, and that was the really interesting moment for me, and that’s something I wanted to write about and explore again.

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.

Sylvia Plath

In The Fisherman, the male character became a man in his sixties, and a poet this time round. This was simply because I’d watched a local poet give a talk at Te Papa, and he was a wonderful character and his poetry was full of sex.

My fictional poet’s house was based on that of a friend I used to visit when I lived down South. I used to go round and help him with his computer and we would chat for hours. There was an age-gap and certainly nothing romantic between us, just a lovely friendship (contrary to the gossip!). He was a father to me just after I’d lost mine and I did have a bit of a crush on him. The poet’s weird way of talking is based on my old friend’s accent, a New Zealand accent that some older kiwis have that’s almost Devon or Cornwall in lilt.

The horrendous, awkward conversation where she tells him how she feels about him? – less said about that the better. Based on true events, but only loosely, given all the other influences in the story.

There is a line in the story, arguably the best in the whole story, that I need to belatedly credit to my friend, the writer Alison Dunne, with apologies. In the story, after going to bed with the ‘fisherman’, the woman worries that he’ll put her in one of his poems. He says: ‘If you don’t want to be in a poem, don’t fuck a poet.’ Terrific line, eh? The situation in the story came up and the line fitted, so I wrote it down. It had been knocking about in the filing cabinet of my mind for approximately fifteen years and had detached from its original source in that time, which is why I used it without even thinking. But, it was a line in one of Alison’s poems and that was definitely where I’d first encountered it. I felt terrible when I realised and very embarrassed. It’s a mistake I’ll be very careful never to make again. If the story ever gets published in a collection – I would like to have a collection out one day – I’ll make sure that it’s credited accordingly, but I’d love it to stay. A link to that poem is here: Alison’s poetry.

It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.

Joan Baez

Most of the time I’m not even conscious of where stories and characters and even lines come from. I move my pen across the page and am often surprised by what comes out. Most of it is completely made up, but there’s always at least a kernel of truth to lend authenticity to the tale, and, I hope, emotional depth.

How about you? Where do your ideas come from? How much do you draw on real life for your work? And, if you write creative non-fiction, how much do you add or take away to make it better for the page?

2 thoughts on “Building Stories: Where do they come from?

  1. Thanks for the look behind the scenes Becca. I am fascinated by the process and you’ve given us some interesting insights here. I don’t put my writing into either of these categories. So far, I stick with mostly the facts, choosing which ones to reveal and which to conceal but I haven’t ventured into adding or altering elements. I have thought about how some of these the things I’ve written down could be the basis of a story, but writing those stories seems too hard at the moment.

    • Sticking to the facts obviously works for you. I really enjoy your blog posts whenever I visit. There’s a lot of heart to be found in the facts of real lives. A lot of humanity. They may be facts, but they’re still stories in their own way.
      Thanks for that ‘gifts of the magi’ comment you made to me on your blog btw. I really got something from that. It made me think about my own behaviour a lot. I do way too much of that. There’s a balance to be found, isn’t there.
      Cheers for taking the time to read and make a comment too. 🙂

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