One of the most frequently asked, and for me at least, one of the most frustrating, questions for a writer is: 'Where do you find your inspiration?' One of the answers I am always tempted to give with my horror audience, but not yet used, is ‘imagining what I shall do with the next person to ask that question.’ I dread having to field this one because for me at least there is no straight answer.
It may seem a logical query to the non-writer, but I strongly suspect that most of authors on being asked it seldom have a ready answer beyond watching the world around them and taking it all in by osmosis. The answer I have heard given most often is along the lines of 'it just arrives.' And in my experience that is as close to the truth as can be. We steal a piece here and a hint there, and the hard works comes in drawing all of those tiny things into a mosaic that makes sense to our readers.
As a breed writers should be acknowledged as the nosiest people on earth; or if you are being more generous then perhaps the most observant. The most boring of trips out into the wide world of people can provide such a lot of background material.
This morning alone a quick trip into town to order new glasses handed me a handful without even trying.
First snippet was a young couple walking a short way ahead of us. My first impression, even before anything occurred, was that they were such an ill assorted pair. She was tall and elegant, despite her hair being scraped back in an Essex facelift, and the soft pump shoes on her feet that were totally inadequate for the weather. She seemed to be poised and alert, and intent on the very new baby in the buggy that she was pushing. Walking beside her was a girl of perhaps three years old. Well spoken and articulate and constantly asking mummy questions. With them also was a scruffy man in drooping trackie bottoms and an anorak that was several sized too large. He was skinny and bandy legged, with the kind of closely shorn head that made his ears seem to stick out like taxi cab doors. That, with his pinched features and hunched posture, gave him a furtive, almost feral, demeanour. I was thinking to myself that he was something of a walking cliche when his actions completed that image in a rather chilling fashion.
As we approached the woman suddenly turned the buggy around as if she was going to walk back up the hill. Her partner(?) grabbed her wrist and she shook him off at first, before he started to gesticulate, heading her off with and outstretched arm. His words came back to me quite clear and chilling. ‘Just get going, you. That way. Go on... I mean it.’ She turned back and walked on, but with the distance between the two widening by the second, until she was ten or twelve paces behind him. Meanwhile the young girl ran back and for between them like a sheep dog, obviously unsure of who she was with and clearly bewildered. The story behind that exchange may well be innocent but my fevered brain was imagining all sorts of things and all of them dark.
Stopping in Nero’s for a coffee I overheard two young women who had arrived separately but were plainly meeting up for coffee. One of them produced a card that apparently bore a message poking fun at the proposed recipient, their father judging by the comments. Then much rustling of paper and each showed the other their other purchases (I could not see what they were) and agreed that each had chosen a perfect gift. Story? There is a lucky father somewhere about to receive presents lovingly chosen by his daughters.
At the next table two older women had also met up for coffee and they had barely sat down when one of them proudly produced a photograph from her voluminous bag. She had just had it enlarged somewhere in town, a studio group portrait of four or five people in their later years. ‘It’s a good one of Geoff,’ she sighed. Her friend reached across the table without speaking to press her hand. A story of love and loss in that simple exchange.
All this while a young man (mid thirties) sat at the table closest to the window and tapped away at his laptop keys, now and then a slight smile crossing his face. Then he stopped typing and gazed into space for some minutes. He looked back at the screen, typed a few words and instantly deleted them (one space at a time – we all know that woodpecker gesture!) frowned, sighed, closed the laptop lid and. The pain and frustration of a fellow writer was evident, though whether of fiction or fact I could not tell. Story... well it would seem that is his to tell.
I took the bus home (its about a mile and almost all of it uphill which is hard work if you have shopping). At one of the stops in the hospital grounds a man in his early forties got on and made his way straight to the back of the bus. He had a Paddington Bear toy in his right hand and I automatically looked behind him; as he had got on in near the children’s unit I assumed that he would have a child or possibly grandchild with him. Other people got on at that stop, one of whom was a woman probably in her late seventies. She paid her fare and stood for a moment, a flurry of emotions passing over her features as she scanned the passengers, the last expression was one of slight panic until another of the passengers, plainly known to her, signalled toward the rear seats.
The woman hurried past me and I heard her ask ‘Shall I put Paddington in my bag, dear?’ The reply was mumbled but her reaction was, ‘Well all right, you can carry him, but be careful when we get off. You don’t want to fall over.’ Plainly the bear-toting man was the child. He and his doting mother seemed happy enough but for how long? The story there is of a mother's devotion, and what will happen to her son when she grows too old to care for him.
All of those things will be filed away for future use, either as a short story or part of something larger. None of the details in the lives of anyone is ever entirely wasted. Not when there the nosiest beings in the world are watching every move.
Jan will be reading from her award-winning crime novel Winter Downs at Chester Lit Fest on 27th November.
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