Finding the Fascinating

My work for War History Online has been taking me to some odd places. It turns out that the majority of the site’s readership aren’t interested in the same sort of history as me. They want facts about tanks, planes, and guns more than obscure incidents. They’re really into 20th-century history, which is fine, but I tend toward older things.

I’ve got no complaints about this. Being paid to read and write about history is a big win, regardless of what sort of history. But it does mean an adjustment in my intellectual intake. Less stuff on causes of crusades, more guides to fighter planes.

I won’t lie, my initial reaction was to grit my teeth. But as I’ve gone along, I’ve remembered something important – that anything can be fascinating if viewed in the right way. The history of fighter planes contains many moments of ingenuity and odd invention. 20th-century military history contains the strange final days of the Second World War, the ridiculous politics of the Korean War, and of course General Haig’s attempts to bring his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.

You can find the fascinating anywhere if you look hard enough. And in my work, I don’t have to look very hard.

The Tightrope Walker – a flash fantasy story

I sat at my window. The warm light of sunrise spread through the sky, its rich orange shining all the bolder against the grey sea below. The beach was deserted. I wondered what it would be like to walk there, to feel the sand between my toes, the damp beneath my feet.

But walking on the beach meant leaving the flat, and even through a sleepless night like this one, I could barely will myself to get up out of my chair. My sketchpad lay idle in my lap, paints and canvass gathering dust in the corner. As long as I did nothing I felt nothing. It was when I stirred that the dread came.

A movement caught my eye. At first, I thought that it was an early morning runner, made pale by some trick of the light. But he was not on the road or the beach. He stood with arms held wide, balancing on the wire along which lights were strung above the promenade. With smooth, careful movements he walked along his unusual tightrope.

The walker did not look real. His face and clothes were all white as paper. His features seemed draw on in crude ink. Yet he was the most real thing that I had ever seen.

By the time he descended from the wire and disappeared, I was smiling like I hadn’t in months. I opened my sketchbook, sharpened a pencil, and set to work.


Every morning, the tightrope walker was there, stirring me back to life.

The first time I painted all day before collapsing exhausted. After a week, I managed only the mornings. Soon I was down to an hour each day. As the vivid memory of the tightrope walker faded, so did my passion for life and for art.

I knew the power of art. If I could capture the essence of that fleeting moment then its inspiration could carry me through the day. And so I sat one morning, pencil in hand, watching the tightrope walker begin his journey above the lights.

A few swift strokes caught the outlines of sea and sky, lamps and pier. Then I set to work on the man himself. His arms, his body, his head, those legs which flowed with sure and artful movement along the wire.

He seemed more ephemeral than usual, like a ghost in the dawn. I hurried to draw him while I still could, but with each stroke of my pencil he faded further from the world. I cast aside my sketchbook and pencil, but it was too late.

The tightrope walker was gone.

Tears streamed down my face. Once I was empty, the numbness returned.


I hoped rather than believed that the tightrope walker would return the next day. Of course he did not. I had destroyed my own muse.

I looked at the empty wire, wondering what it had been like to be him. What it had felt like to have that wire beneath his feet.

If this was all I had, then I had to know.

Barefoot, feeling each sensation beneath me, I opened the door and stepped out for the first time in months. I felt the wooden boards of the hallway, the rough edges of the steps, the uneven tarmac of the much-repaired pavement outside my block of flats. I felt cold metal against the insides of my feet as I hauled myself up a lamppost, balanced precariously on the back of the streetlight, and prepared to set foot on the wire.

Then I saw a figure in a window, sketchbook in hand, staring numbly out at the world.

I placed my foot on the wire and started to walk.

* * *


This story was inspired by a picture I created in an art class. I didn’t make it with a story in mind, but whatever I was doing, it tapped into something. Sometimes you really can be your own inspiration.

As for the rest, I’ve suffered from depression. No, strike that, I do suffer from depression, but I’m much better at managing it now. I know that feeling of dread at facing the world. It can be crippling and there aren’t any quick fixes, but moving past it really can be about finding your own best self.

If you liked this story then you can get more like it by signing up for my mailing list.

Memories of Innocence – a flash science fiction story

Inspector Jane Pilgrim sipped at her coffee. It was cold, but it was here as a prop, not a refreshment. Something to give her time to think.

Across the table of the interview room, Brian Diggle sat next to his lawyer, an odious man in a pinstripe suit named Jack Oliver.

“You didn’t hack the neural game factory?” Pilgrim asked. “You’re not the reason all those people’s implants hijacked their brains?”

“No,” Diggle repeated. “Do you have to keep asking?”

His expression was so innocent, his responses so unrehearsed. Both his story, and his emotional reactions were perfect. After this long, nobody could put on a show this good.

Yet she knew it had to be Diggle. The evidence excluded every other possibility. That sleaze ball Oliver might be able to make it inadmissible, but they all knew what the trail showed.

All except the man behind it.

Then it struck her. If Diggle could hijack other people’s brains, could he hijack his own too?

“Time’s almost up, detective,” Oliver said, grinning like a lizard in the sunshine. “Unless you have something else, you’re going to have to let my client go.”

Pilgrim took a deep breath. She had been trying to break through the shell of a guilty Diggle. Maybe instead she needed to work with an innocent man.

“Mister Diggle,” she said, leaning forwards. “Do you know what a neural overlay is?”

“That’s what you say I did to those people,” Diggle said. “Turning them into some sort of zombies.”

“That’s one option, yes,” Pilgrim said. “But there are other uses too. Overlays based on real memories help veterans in trauma counselling. There are stories of spies using them. Laying a fake personality over their real one to get through interrogation.

“Those spies set a pre-arranged fault in the programming. Afterwards, they read a code word or experience an event that triggers a real memory. The fake personality vanishes, taking its memories with it, leaving the true person behind.”

“You’re saying I’m using an overlay?” Diggle laughed angrily. “This is absurd. You’re making things up now.”

“I’m not saying that you’re using an overlay, Mister Diggle. I’m saying that you are one. And underneath it all, the real Brian Diggle, the man who destroyed all those lives, is hiding.”

Oliver shifted uncomfortably in his seat. There was a faint whir from the video camera in the corner.

“No,” Diggle said. “I remember my life. I remember my past. I’m a real person.”

“Do you remember what you had for breakfast yesterday?” Pilgrim asked. “What your favourite toy was as a child? Who your first crush was? These are the details that make us human, Mister Diggle, but there’s seldom time to include them in an overlay.”

Diggle’s eyes went wide. His lips parted as if he was about to speak, but instead he just sat, mouth agape, horror freezing his expression.

“Enough,” Oliver said. “This is absurd. My client is leaving.”

He got up and tried to haul Diggle to his feet. But Diggle shook him off and sat staring at Pilgrim.

“I don’t want to not be real,” he whispered. “I don’t want to be wiped away.”

“Don’t say anything more,” Oliver snapped. “You have to come with me.”

“You don’t have to go anywhere,” Pilgrim said.

“I don’t get to live, do I?” Diggle asked, eyes watering. He really was an innocent. “Once this is over, he’ll come back.”

“There will be a signal,” Pilgrim said. “Something you know you want to do after the interview. That will trigger the change.”

“A cigarette,” Diggle whispered. He pulled a packet out of his pocket and dropped it on the table. “I don’t smoke, but I want to have a cigarette when I leave.”

He looked at the packet sadly, rotating it on the tabetop with one thin finger.

“If I don’t ever smoke it, will he never come back?” he asked.

“Sooner or later, the overlay will collapse,” Pilgrim said. “Maybe you’ll smell someone else’s cigarette and that will be enough. Maybe the programming will just fade. Either way, you don’t have long.”

“Fuck.” He wiped a tear from his cheek. “So what do I do?”

“Help me catch the man who did this,” Pilgrim said. “If the overlay drops here, on record, I might do something with that.”

“No!” Oliver exclaimed. “We’re leaving. Now.”

“Fuck you,” Diggle snapped. “You’re fired.”

“You can’t fire me! You’re not even-” Oliver froze. “Ah.”

Pilgrim stood, opened the door, and glared at the lawyer.

“Your client just fired you,” she said. “You have no right to be here.”

Shoulders slumping, Oliver slunk out. Pilgrim slammed the door behind him.

“Ready?” she asked.

“No,” Diggle said, placing a cigarette between his lips. “But I’m still doing it.”

As he raised a lighter, Pilgrim went to stand behind him, out of sight. There was a click, the sound of a deep breath, and then a cloud of smoke.

Brian Diggle’s shoulders shifted, his legs stretched out, and he leaned back.

“Wicked,” he said. Then he glanced around. “Wait, why am I still here?” He raised his voice. “Oliver, where are you, you wanker?”

“What were we just talking about, Mister Diggle?” Pilgrim asked.

He jumped at the sound of her voice. Angry eyes turned to glare at the detective.

“Who the fuck are you?” he asked. “Where’s my fucking lawyer?”

“You don’t remember?” she asked.

“No, I don’t fucking remember,” Diggle snarled. “Lawyer. Now.”

“Brian Diggle,” Inspector Pilgrim said, “you are under arrest for attempting to obstruct the police in the course of their investigations through the use of a memory overlay…”

For the second time, she began reading him his rights.

Except that it wasn’t the second time, and the man she had met before was sadly gone.

* * *


Sometimes story comes from theme. I was reading a bunch of articles, looking for inspiration. Stories about robots in disguise, lizards with sheddable skin, dark web versions of normal websites. Then I noticed a theme in the things that had interested me. They were all about things with hidden natures. So rather than write about one of those specific ideas, I decided to riff on that theme, and here’s the result.

If you enjoyed this story then please share it, and consider checking out my collection of sci-fi stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

Ken Burns’s The Civil War – a Great Source of Writing Inspiration

Real history is often the best source of inspiration for writers, especially science fiction and fantasy writers. It provides the sorts of fascinating details that can bring stories, characters and settings to life. This week I’ve been re-watching my favourite historical documentary, Ken Burns’s The Civil War, and as I again watched the horrors of the American Civil War unfold, I noted down a whole bunch of fascinating facts, and ideas spinning off from them. Here, in no particular order, are some of the top ones…

Grant’s Hundred Gun Salutes

Union General Ulysses S. Grant, as well as having an amazing name and a knack for warfare, clearly had a grim sense of humour. During the Siege of Petersburg, he celebrated other Union victories by firing hundred gun salutes. But whereas such salutes are normally fired blank or into the air, he fired them at the Confederate siege works.

It’s an incident that could easily be stolen and used in a military fantasy or sci-fi story, with a celebratory salute fired at enemies. But that combination of celebration with attacking enemies could also be developed into something far darker – a leader who uses executions in celebrations; a torturer who saves victims for saints days; a general who fires such a salute to mark his opponent’s birthday.

A Prison City

By late in the war, the fifth largest city in the Confederacy was a prisoner of war camp. I don’t mean that they filled a city with prisoners, I mean that only four cities in the rebel nation had populations larger than that camp. It was filthy, squalid, and the prisoners weren’t even allowed to build shelters for themselves.

It’s an idea that’s easy to scale up for dramatic effect. A prison planet where a galactic empire dumps the unwanted. A nation that uses an actual city as a prison. That sort of thing.

Incidentally, one of the reasons the prison camp was so large was the involvement, once again, of General Grant. In protest at the Confederacy’s massacres of black prisoners of war, Grant ceased all exchanges of POWs until the Confederacy would recognise the equality of black soldiers. Given that inequality between blacks and whites was pretty much the defining cause of the war, that wasn’t going to happen, and so the prisoners piled up.

Sherman on Grant

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had more in common with General Ulysses S Grant than having great names – the two were also friends. Following some of the more difficult periods in both their lives, Sherman said this of Grant:

“He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”

If that’s not the basis of a great relationship between a pair of lead characters, then I don’t know what is.

The Gettysburg Address

Aside from being one of the most eloquent and moving speeches of all time, President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is also, mercifully, one of the shortest. In a century when quantity of rhetoric was regarded as a mark of quality, Lincoln swam against the tide.

Except that he didn’t do it as a deliberate act of nonconformity. He wasn’t the lead speaker that day, so didn’t want to talk for long, and afterwards he thought the speech had been a failure. Even great men can misjudge their own successes, and trends aren’t always broken on purpose – two valuable lessons for character and world building.


The military cemetery at Arlington is now world famous, having featured in so many films, TV shows and news broadcasts that it’s known around the world. But until late 1863, the United States used two other large military cemeteries. It is an indication of the tragedy of the war that both those cemeteries became full, forcing the Union to create a new one following further heavy casualties in 1864. The man put in charge of picking the sight was Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs.

Meigs was a southerner, but sided with the Union on principle, and became Quartermaster General when the previous office holder joined the Confederate forces at the start of the war. He despised the Confederacy, and given the task of selecting the site for the new national cemetery, he took the opportunity to symbolically stick it to the leading Confederate general, Robert E Lee. He chose Lee’s Arlington Estate in Virginia, then occupied by the Union, as the new burial ground, filling the beautiful landscape of Lee’s former home with the bodies of the war dead.

There’s so much to take from the story of Arlington. If you’re writing military sci-fi or fantasy, have you thought about where the dead are buried, and how that can be made interesting? What acts of spite arise from divided loyalties? How do people respond to the shocking casualties of war? Why might one of your characters find their home turned into a graveyard?

Share Your Historical Inspiration

What historical incidents have given you great inspiration? And what sources would you recommend for ideas? Share your thoughts in the comments. And if you haven’t already seen it, I heartily recommend Burns’s The Civil War, which is currently available on UK Netflix.

PBS Space Time: Science for Fun and Inspiration

I watch a lot of YouTube videos, both to relax and to provide writing inspiration. One of my current favourite channels is PBS Space Time, where astrophysicist host Gabe Perez-Giz explores some often crazy questions about space. I love the combination of bizarre topics with real science, which is very fertile ground for science fiction ideas. Here are two of my recent favourites – ‘Could you fart your way to the Moon?’ and ‘Could NASA start the zombie apocalypse?’



One day, maybe we can all fart our way to the moon.

Holiday Writing Inspiration

When I go on holiday, even though I leave the writing behind I always find myself stumbling across inspiration. Of note this time…

Walking with (slightly unconvincing) dinosaurs, great for ideas for monsters.
Walking with (slightly unconvincing) dinosaurs, great for ideas for monsters.
One scientist's idea of intelligent life evolving from dinosaurs. Star of some future story.
One scientist’s idea of intelligent life evolving from dinosaurs. Star of some future story.
Dorchester's teddy bear museum, a place of the uncanny and terrible puns.
Dorchester’s teddy bear museum, a place of the uncanny and of many terrible bear-related puns. For any Thomas Hardy fans out there, this is the family of the Bear of Casterbridge. Because Bear = Mayor, and Casterbridge was based on Dorchester. Funny, right? Right? Why are you not laughing? I did.
Why yes, a soft toy of an infamous sadist sounds like an excellent idea. That's an inspiringly wrong juxtaposition of elements.
Why yes, a soft toy of an infamous sadist sounds like an excellent idea. That’s a brilliantly wrong juxtaposition of elements.
A tree with a scarf. I love it when random creativity escapes into the world like this.
A tree with a scarf. I love it when random creativity escapes into the world like this.
Not story inspiration but I made all my old Lego! And half my brother's! So much fun.
Not story inspiration but I made all my old Lego! And half my brother’s! And a new set I bought! So much fun.
Finally, the best cheesecake I've ever tasted, and I eat a lot of cheesecake. If you're ever in Dorchester, check out the Old Tea House.
Finally, the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted, and I eat a lot of cheesecake. If you’re ever in Dorchester, check out the Old Tea House.

Randomisation as a Writing Tool – Writing Excuses Exercise 10.10

Boy, I'm glad that's not ominous.
Boy, I’m glad that’s not ominous.

There are a lot of different ways you can use randomisation to inspire writing. Phillip K Dick famously used the I Ching to guide him in writing The Man in the High Castle. I’ve dabbled with story dice and flicking through books to pick a word or picture. And this week podcast Writing Excuses used the I Ching both to generate questions and to create a writing prompt.

The Exercise

Randomly generated using the I Ching, this week’s writing prompt is:

Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen, the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty. Who will win the golden crown of glory? Among them all, only the peony stands out.

For me, creativity requires structure as well as chaos. To give this prompt a bit more structure, I decided not to use it to generate something from scratch, but to build on a story idea I’m already working on for this week’s flash Friday piece.

My starting place for the story was inspired by my friend Marios, who was talking about people having to present their academic theses on human skin – more specifically their own skin. It’s an intriguingly grizzly idea, and one that puts limits on what the characters write too. But beyond that high concept, I’ve got nothing for the story. Lets see what this prompt gives me.

Flowers and Competition

The obvious thing is the flowers. My character’s academic field is going to be botany. That opens up potential to look at strange, fantastical plants and their uses.

Conflict is also clearly present in that I Ching passage. The flowers are competing for the one place of high status. I’m going to transfer that dynamic onto the academics of my story. We have two botanists competing for a top prize, job or bursary. Only one can win through the glory of their work. Who will it be?

So, with two minutes’ thought, this random prompt has given me my conflict and some information about both my characters – I doubt I’ll have space for more than two in this flash story. That’s pretty good going.

The Joy of Chaos

I think that these random idea generators work so well at times because they give us rough edges to generate ideas off. The ideas we dream up can sometimes be neat but without the complex or contradictory details that bring stories to life. Randomness adds that.

Do any of you have favourite random idea generators? What are they, and how helpful are they?

And of course you can come back on Friday to see how this story pans out.

Picture by Payton Chung via Flickr creative commons.

Writing Excuses exercise 10.4 – ideas

I’ve fallen behind on the exercises from the course Writing Excuses are running. Fortunately for me, my favourite writing podcast still includes a wildcard episode once a month not related to the course, so by skipping those I’ll hopefully catch up. I know I have quite a few readers who are doing the course, so how are you folks getting on?

This week I’m catching up on the exercise from episode 10.4, a Q&A on generating ideas. The exercise is:

Take one of the ideas you’re excited about, and then audition five different characters for the lead role in that story. Make sure they’re all different from each other.

I’ve chosen a story I’m considering for a future flash Friday, returning to the weird western world of ‘Straight Poker‘. I want to expand on that setting by giving other games magical power. In particular, I thought that the Plains Indian act of ‘counting coup‘ by touching an opponent in battle would make an interesting magical rite.

If I had more time, I’d ‘audition’ characters for this story by writing a chunk of it with each of them. As it is, I’ll stick with discussing their merits as central characters. So…

A young Plains Indian brave: This character has obvious advantages. This could be his first chance to prove himself, counting coup against an opponent either on the battlefield or in some other tense setting. It’s clearly identifiable as a coming of age thing. It’s probably who I would have chosen without this exercise. Maybe a bit too obvious.

A rancher against whom coup is counted during an attack, thus laying a curse on him: Having an outside perspective makes it easier to retain mystery around the magic, but also makes it harder to explore it in a small number of words. Victims make good central characters if they fight back against their status, but can be too passive. Also, I’m not sure I want to fall into the old ‘cowboys good, Indians bad’ trap. And speaking of traps, I realised as I wrote this that I’d automatically made the rancher male, when a woman would be more unusual and therefore interesting. Bad Andrew, perpetuating the patriarchy – go invent a better idea.

An old Plains Indian woman: OK, I’ve swung as far as I could from young, white, male protagonist. And the results raise a lot of interesting questions – why would a woman like this want to count coup? what’s her connection to the magic of that act? how can someone old and frail achieve anything in a battle? It’s such a challenge for her, she’s instantly more interesting as a protagonist.

An escaped slave: Ooh, intriguing. Slavery existed alongside some of the conflicts between settlers and Plains Indians. Maybe this woman has learned that she can gain power over her former master by counting coup. Maybe she’s seeking shelter and acceptance in the tribe. Either way, it mixes up the binary cowboys and Indians dynamic often shown in westerns.

A Chinese railroad worker: If I’ve learnt one thing from Hell on Wheels it’s that driving railroad lines across North America caused territorial conflicts with the Plains Indians. The gangs laying rails from the west coast included a lot of Chinese labour, and that could give a very different perspective on this. There’s a clear source of conflict – the railroad – and an innocent worker just trying to feed his family, now caught up in that conflict. Maybe he knows some magic from his homeland, helping me explore this setting some more.

There we go, five ideas. I’m really glad I tried this exercise, as the first couple of characters are definitely the least interesting, and as I pushed myself to come up with various protagonists I realised that they could show me more about the world the story explores. I should do this more often.

Now I just have to decide which one to use – anybody got any thoughts on who would be best? Which character intrigues you most?

This also reminded of some of the exercises in Edward de Bono’s How to Be More Interesting. Despite its pompous title, and sometimes pompous tone, de Bono’s book has some good exercises for expanding your creative muscles, and might be worth a look if you’re after more exercises like this.

Did any of you do this exercise? How did you get on? And if you just want to try it now, why not share your ideas in the comments? I’d be fascinated to see what you come up with.

Writing Excuses exercise 10.2 – developing ideas

As mentioned in a previous post, the excellent Writing Excuses podcast is running as a free fiction writing course this year. I’m following along, completing the exercises and sharing my results here, and I hope you will too. If you’d like to join in, please feel free to leave your answers to the exercises, or a link to where you’ve written them up, in the comments below.

This week’s episode, titled ‘I Have An Idea, What Do I Do Now?’ discussed developing story ideas once you have them. The exercise is:

Using last week’s five story ideas (or five new ones):

  1. Take two of them and combine them into one story.
  2. Take one and change the genre underneath it.
  3. Take one and change the ages and genders of everybody you had in mind for it
  4. Take the last one and have a character make the opposite choice.

You can see my five ideas in a previous post, and here’s what I did with them for the exercise:

1. Combining:

I decided to combine my second idea, a historical novel about a young bowman’s experience on the Agincourt campaign, with my fourth idea, a science fiction story about trying to police planetary borders. It felt like a suitably challenging pair to combine.

I think that the most interesting way to do this, while keeping plenty of elements from both stories, is to make it about people trying to enforce customs duties along the English Channel during that period, with the sci-fi element becoming a bit of secret history. So these local officials – probably a couple of minor nobles or merchants with official tax-raising positions, along with a local militia – have to struggle with two issues making their life difficult – the huge disruption caused by Henry V’s campaign in France, and strange items they start running across while stopping smugglers. It is gradually revealed that these are extra-terrestrial gadgets, being used by secret societies fighting a private war behind the historical scenes. Someone is running a very different sort of smuggling operation, and things are about to get ugly.

Different characters interpret the devices in different ways, and all struggle to be believed. Someone turns out to be a traitor who’s in on the secret war. Everything comes to a head around the same time that the military campaign does.

2. Change the genre:

I’m changing the genre behind my third idea, a cabal secretly running the world using playing-card-powered magic. Instead of fantasy it becomes science fiction. The people running a future society do so through extremely advanced technology, but they have a limited number of one-shot devices and have lost the ability to make more. The shortage causes bitter competition for this limited resource, in which more and more of the devices are used up. It’s a situation that could bring the whole institution to its knees.

3. Change the ages and genders:

My first idea, about an ageing bureaucracy running a baroque galactic empire, gets a big age switch-around. Now it’s the young who are using ancient traditions and strange practices to exclude older people from any influence or power. After witnessing her wife’s death from neglect at the hands of this failing system, a grandmother sets out to begin a revolution.

4. Change a choice:

As in my original fifth idea, a pair of angry lovers decide to destroy the town that harmed them. But as they begin their rampage, one of them feels a great sense of remorse and tries to stop the other. Soon the lovers are battling each other, one defending the town, the other trying to destroy it.


Reflecting on the exercise:

Even after years of practice, I often still just write the first version of an idea that pops into my head, rather than trying to vary it or take a different angle. This exercise was good for making me move away from obvious choices, and I think that the stories are richer for it. I like that I now have an octogenarian revolutionary protagonist, but I felt like the most interesting shift came in the fourth exercise. Changing a character’s decision also alters their motives and character, as well as the course of the story. It took things in an unexpected direction.

What do you think of my ideas? Do you have any good approaches for refining story ideas? And if you did the exercise how did you get on? Please feel free to leave any comments or your own answers to the exercise below.

Happy writing!

Writing Excuses Masterclass exercise 1 – generating ideas

I mentioned on Saturday that Writing Excuses are running this year’s podcasts as a free writing course, with exercises for each lesson. To try to add to what I learn from this, and generate discussion with any of you who are interested, I’m going to post the exercises and what I produce here. No set timetable yet – we’ll see how I get on. If you feel like trying these exercises and sharing the results then I’d love to read them – please put your ideas or a link to them in the comments.

So, a week behind, here are the exercises from the first episode of this course (10.1), and what I came up with:

Write down five different story ideas in 150 words or less. Generate these ideas from these five sources:

From an interview or conversation you’ve had
From research you’ve done (reading science news, military history, etc)
From observation (go for a walk!)
From a piece of media (watch a movie)
From a piece of music (with or without lyrics)

This exercise might not generate the very best ideas you’ve ever had, but it will definitely flex your idea muscles in new ways.

1. From an interview or conversation:

A galactic empire is run by an ageing bureaucracy full of strange customs and traditions in a Gormenghast style. Our protagonist must survive the strange and deadly customs involved in joining this august body before he can bring reform.

This one was inspired by a conversation about reforming Britain’s House of Lords.

2. From research:

The story of a young bowman in Henry V’s army on the Agincourt campaign. He becomes disillusioned with the warrior king he idealised, and with the romance of soldiering, as he sees the unpleasant reality of medieval warfare. The final act sees him plunged into a horrifying sea of mud and bloodshed as the outnumbered English fight for their lives in the famous battle.

This one is kind of cheating. It’s based on research I did for a couple of freelance jobs, and I considered writing it as a novel this year, as it’s the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Then I realised I didn’t have time, so I’ll just put the idea here instead.

3. From observation:

A secret cabal of mages govern the world using magic they tap into through playing cards. But each mage can only use each card once, and when they run out their power is gone. Different cards have different powers. The protagonist is a good mage fighting the bad mages, because I am too tired for a more nuanced plot right now.

Based on seeing an ace of clubs lying abandoned in a puddle.

4. From a piece of media:

A border police story, inspired by Canadian police procedural series The Border, except in space. A group of security professionals struggle to stop smugglers, terrorists and annoying tourists crossing the planetary border, in particular a shuttle docking platform on top of a geosynchronous space elevator. Combine it with The Wire-style plots where you get to see and sympathise with both sides of the criminal divide, and every act is politicised.

5. From a piece of music:

A pair of angry lovers prepare to burn down the town that persecuted them before disappearing into the night. It all goes horribly wrong.

Inspired by one of my all time favourite albums, Black Love by the Afghan Whigs, especially the tracks ‘Crime Scene Part 1’ and ‘Going to Town’.


Great song. Shame about the video.

There we go, my ideas. Please feel free to share yours in the comments, or comment on mine – who knows, maybe one day I’ll write one of them.

And go listen to Writing Excuses. It’s great.