Over here in the UK we have just had 500 Words 2018: The BBC’s children’s short story writing competition. There were close to 135,000 entries and there was a lot of pre-competition support and discussion about getting ideas. But there was one thing that I heard that really resonated with me. One of the finalists told of how, on a regular journey he had often observed a small Robin hopping and pecking on the same window ledge. Struck by it’s persistence it led the boy to wonder what it might all be for. He was then able to craft the most beautiful and quite moving tale based on this one little observation.
There really are so many ways writers of all ages and genres can become inspired so I would like to share one or two experiences with you in a little more depth. These are either first hand or are experiences had by someone close to me and have given me inspiration to write.
I suppose really I should start by going back to some of the sayings and proverbs we use. They often mean something because they are connected to an event that once took place, but then we find there are often so many versions to consider we might never discover the truth.
All stories that have derived from someone’s perception of an event have credibility
For example, there is an expression of surprise or amazement that is often used given through the use of a name – Gordon Bennett. Few people know the stories associated with the reasons why this is so. When i was younger I had a book about cars that claimed this story derived from a Gordon Bennet who back in the early days of motor sport racing became a surprise winner. Spectators had
There are other explanations such as the Gordon Bennett Jnr, son of the newspaper magnate, he certainly holds one honour - holder of the Guinness Book of Records entry for "Greatest Engagement Faux Pas". One very drunken evening he turned up late to a posh party held by his future in-laws, and ended up urinating into a fireplace in full view of everyone. Apparently mistaking it for the toilet! The engagement, unsurprisingly, was broken off, and Mr Bennett left New York to pursue his playboy habits in Paris.
The most popular reference for the phrase "Gordon Bennett!" comes from Lieutenant-General Henry Gordon Bennett who abandoned his command and fled to safety during the Japanese invasion of Singapore during the second world war leaving his unfortunate troops behind to be captured. Hmm … not so sure about that one, but it is interesting to see how such a simple phrase becomes totally associated with a past incident.
It’s real experiences that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up
Every now and again I hear something that makes my hairs stand up on the back of my neck. That may sound a bit of a cliche, and I might be exaggerating a little, but the truth is it usually takes something pretty strong to get me going. I don’t start to write until I have that feeling about at least some part of my plot outline.
When I was researching local ghost stories for one of my first books I came across one of those ‘make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up’ moments:
We moved to Peterborough when I was seven. before that we lived in a vicarage in a small village in Cambridgeshire. It was a big old house and had more than just the odd ghost story to go with it. One very vivid memory I have as a child was waking up to the sound of loud footsteps coming from the back staircase and along the landing and then stopping outside my bedroom door that was always slightly ajar. The landing light was always left on and I vividly remember seeing the covers at the end of my bed depress and a soft toy move around. I screamed and my mum rushed to my aid. I had always believed this to be a dream … until one day in 2011 when I read an account of a large private residence in the same village that had experienced the sound of footsteps coming up the back stairway and then entering the second bedroom where a figure would then appear sitting on the end of a bed. The residents wished the precise location to remain anonymous. I had always convinced myself it must have been a dream, now I’m not so sure!
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction
He was 16 at the time and playing with two friends on the local golf course one warm summer evening. The golf course was built around 1981- 82 on the flood meadows that adorned the River Nene. Man-made lakes were formed and greatly expanded into the natural flood areas as this picture from the 1970's shows.
We spent the next few days investigating, looking online and talking to the local librarian. I have copies of the newspaper articles that picked up the story of a young athletic thin lad who drowned in the river trying to get home one summers evening. He had become quite a legend with the locals, but that fateful night he had tried to cross the river at a known shallow spot at what would have been the very same place my son and his friends saw the apparition scrambling to get free ... as if wading through water. This all happened in the mid - 1800’s.
This obvious parallel, about which we could have known nothing at the time, inspired me, and I found myself using this story as an underlying mini theme in one of the stories for The Spirit of Peterborough. You can get that story here
Real proven historical events are powerful golden nuggets for story-telling
When my sister and I were very small we use to make the two hour journey across to my Gran and Grandad’s for a holiday stay. In fact both sets of grandparents only lived about 30 miles apart and we’d often find ourselves making those journeys maybe four or five times a year. One thing we loved to do in the days before tape cassettes existed in cars was just to get my mum and dad to tell us stories from their childhood. The war was a great topic as both my parents were children during WW2, and so it often came up as we listened in the back of my dad’s old Ford Escort. One time my mum told us of how my Grandad had been in the Home Guard. He was too old to be sent away to fight and did his duties from home, but he had a younger step brother who had not been so lucky. Mum used to emphasise to us how unlucky his step-brother had been because he had served on the HMS Hood the night of 24th May 1941 – the night it was sunk. Out of over1400 crew only 3 survived; one of those survivors was the guy on lookout. My mum’s uncle had done a duty swap in order to spend his free time with his mate, and the guy he had voluntarily swapped with was the lookout guy who survived.
Fast forward to August 1975. My Gran and Grandad were on holiday in the south of England somewhere near Brighton when something caught my Grandad’s attention. There was an article in the local rag about a certain gentleman who was I believe, if memory serves me correctly opening an Estate Agents. There was a bit about his past and it mentioned that he had been a survivor from a sunken battleship during the second world war. My Grandad got that feeling ... they had to go and meet this man. While my Grandad started to tell the story of who they were and why they had come, the gentleman standing listening started to shake a little and soon his eyes welled up. My Grandad always said afterwards that he knew what he was coming … he was the very man who had swapped duties with my Grandad’s step-brother and owed his life to the very fact that had happened.
Now, just a few months ago a very good friend of mine made a wartime discovery. This happened on his wife’s side of the family last summer when his brother-in-law sat down to watch a documentary about a tank that had been discovered by a farmer in a field in Belgium. It had been renovated. They had traced it back to being one of the first ever tanks. They were called ’Tanks’ because when they were delivered to the western front in 1916 in large crates the whole operation was made credible by adopting a suitable measure of disguise. They fooled the Germans into thinking they were tanks containing water or critical supplies of some sort. (The name has stuck from that very first week).
At the end of the documentary a photo of the original crew was shown, and in the corner was my friend’s wife’s Grandad.
In the family the story had always been that he never fought. He went out there to paint the equipment – something he was highly trained for and very skilled at. This tank was one of the few to survive that first battle and he was one of the very few to make it home and live a long life. I believe he lived into the 1960’s.
What these two stories have in common is the sheer unlikeliness, the rarity of something like that happening. The chances of making those discoveries must be very, very small.
Or are they?
I’ve told you some strange things here, but they are all absolutely true and they are just experiences that I have had and use as inspiration in certain ways for my writing. If it happens for me like this it must surely happen for others too.
I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had any similar experiences or have any stories to tell.
You can eave a comment below
Things always happen by chance . . . just at different levels of likelihood.
Always expect the unexpected.
So, I did say that these wartime stories have inspired me. Well, they certainly have, but the second one I told you is quite recent and can’t lay any claim to it having helped to produce a fully crafted story yet!
But the story about the survivor from the HMS Hood was very much on my mind along with many other tales of valour and heroism from World War 1 that were floating about when I penned Prophecy of Peace a year or two ago.
Chance is a fine thing … or at least, it can be.
You can get Prophecy of Peace from here