All cities great and small

I love cities. From the sprawling metropolis of London, to the picture perfect heart of Durham, to the relaxed comforts of Norwich, I’ve lived in some of the most contrasting British cities, and loved them all.

I love them as settings to write in as well. I think the reasons for that are the same reasons I love them as places to live – it’s the potential. In a ┬ácity you can always find something new. Whether it’s a dusty secondhand bookshop down a street you never wandered before, a real ale rock bar hiding round the back of a chain pub, or some slither of history preserved between a shopping centre and an office block.

You can usually find what you want as well. The large populations of cities, and the people travelling in from all around, mean they can support specialists – oriental supermarkets, comic shops, novelty tearooms, jazz bars, and a hundred other things too specialised to survive in even a decent sized town. Museums? Check. Libraries? Check. Galleries? Check. In the same half mile of Manchester I can browse back issues of Batman and balls of double knit wool, then go drink coffee while Victorian art.

These same things that make cities great in life make them great for writing – you never know what you might find, but you can always find what you want. In a city you can throw in the crazy and the extreme, and whatever niche you need filled in your story, you’ll find a way. They also make great settings for odd characters, people who might seem out of place elsewhere – an astrologer, a steam mechanic, a smuggler of dragon eggs, they each have a few other settings where they might be found, but they can live shoulder to shoulder in a city. And yet, if you need to make them uncomfortable, challenge them with something unfamiliar, just have them take a wrong turn and within two streets they can be in the dreaded district of the existentialist spiders.

Sure, not every story fits best in a city. But as sources of inspiration, as places to write, and as places to write about, I’ll always love cities.

Action and meaning

Last weekend Mrs K and I accidentally stumbled upon the Mintfest street arts festival. This made for a wonderful weekend, wandering around Kendal, seeing strange little acts of dancing, juggling, machine building and all sorts of other madness. But while none of this was writing related, my writing brain was still ticking away. Lets face it, if you can’t find inspiration in a mad puppet circus then you can’t find it anywhere.

The best example of this was a trampoline performance by the remarkable Cirque Inextremiste. How does trampolining get to be remarkable? That’s a little hard to explain, but to give you an idea, it involved a comedy terrorist, a five foot red rubber ball, and a stack of calor gas cannisters, all of which spent time bouncing on the trampoline. Off the trampoline there was a spud gun, a blowtorch and some alarmed audience participation. To cap it all off there were some haunting clarinet solos. It was exciting, funny, and at times almost sad.

So what did my writing brain make of this? A story of martyrdom and bouncing explosives, with a musical ending? Well, maybe. But my main take aways were about structuring story.

Firstly, Inextremiste did a great job of setting up plot elements, and using them efficiently. Throw away gags used to warm up the crowd were also set-up for later moves. Objects played multiple roles in the story. The finale was a great pay-off for the hectic action that had come before, and finished with a calmer moment to let it sink in.

The other thing it made me think about was the use of action. The whole performance was visual, with no spoken words. The story was clearly designed as a vehicle for a series of increasingly impressive trampolining stunts. Yet every one of those stunts progressed the story. Unlike the action in poorly plotted thrillers, every act, however spectacular, moved the plot along, adding complications to the central character’s quest for martyrdom.

Looking back over some of my stories, I can see places where a set-piece is there because I like the action, but it changes nothing. And what I was reminded of by Cirque Inextremiste is just how lazy that is. If they, without words, could show how every ridiculous bounce on a trampoline contributed to a story, then I, with the whole English language at my disposal, have no excuse not to do the same.

Why it matters

I put up a post earlier in the week about inspiration. What I didn’t really cover in that post was why this matters. And, inspired by a comment from qbik4, I wanted to expand upon that.

On one timescale it doesn’t matter whether inspiration comes from hard work, bolts from the blue, or a gift from the candy fairy. As long as you’re getting the ideas that’s what counts. The scale where that’s the case is the immediate moment of inspiration.

On another timescale, it really does matter. If inspiration is something that just happens to you then you don’t need to work towards it. In fact, you can’t work towards it. This leaves you disempowered, unable to affect your process of generating ideas, and gives you an excuse for inaction – if I can’t make myself have ideas then I should just wait for them. This leaves you with no reason to practise coming up with ideas, or to explore new ways of generating them. If you think that inspiration just happens you won’t work at encouraging it, and so won’t exercise the mental muscles that are really working when inspiration strikes.

Even if there’s part of inspiration that we don’t understand, that microscale moment where two ideas crash together to form something beautiful and new, it’s important not to mystify that process. If you want to have more inspiration then you need to look at the entirely comprehensible macro scale, where your hard work and practice makes a difference, the scale on which you create a space in which ideas can’t help but collide. By doing this you take control of your process and become better at it. You get rid of your excuse – ‘I’m waiting for an idea’ – and get down to work.

Even this post comes off the back of that process. I’ve been listening to a lot of Writing Excuses, which has taught me to think critically about all the writing processes, including generating ideas. I’ve been going through counselling, which has taught me to examine my own thought processes and the connection between instinctive and rational thinking. And I’ve been applying both sets of learning, practising using those processes to generate ideas about how I think and about how I write. That inspired my post, and meant qbik4’s response slammed into other thoughts in my head and led to this follow up.

What I’m trying to get you to do, if you’re reading this, isn’t necessarily to agree with me. I don’t mind whether you think of inspiration as something magical and external. What matters is that you act like you agree with me, that you focus on the way you can affect your inspiration. Because if you don’t, you’re already half way to giving up, and you’re better than that. Everyone is.


Oh, and go listen to Writing Excuses, especially if you write sf+f. Seriously, it’s great.

Working at inspiration

There’s a tendency to talk about inspiration as something mystical, some flash-from-nowhere power. I think that’s nonsense. Inspiration is like any act of imagination, it’s something you work at.

Partly, this is a long term project. The more time you spend thinking about how you can apply your experiences to stories the more effortless that will become. When I first started writing I’d occassionally notice something interesting. The way light streamed from a porch on a spring evening. The curve of a statue in a gallery. A concept from sociology that explained why people listen to others. I’d note that thing down, I’d think about its ramifications or how it could be used to add colour to a story. I’d mould it into a shape that I could use.

As time went by that got easier. I’d see that fall of light and I’d know straight away how to use it in my current scene. Or I’d hear that sociological concept and see immediately how it could motivate a character. And that was when those moments of inspiration really started to fly. Those flashing insights, the realisation that, hey, that bird would be a good model for monster A, a great metaphor for Lord B’s character, or maybe a hobby for character C, like ornithology or taxidermy, and that’s why her and B don’t get on, and…

Those moments were coming because I’d worked at building a better creative engine, a set of thought processes that were better than ever at creating the ideas I wanted.

But working at it is a short term thing too. This week I’ve been reading Eileen Power’s Medieval Women, because I’m planning a story that involves several medieval women*. For the first few pages I didn’t get much from the book. It was interesting enough, but nothing was really sparking. Then I took one concept, about the deeply divided attitudes to women in medieval Christianity (praise the Virgin Mary, bemoan Eve’s part in the fall, compare all women to both, develop feelings of confusion normally restricted to teenagers). I thought about the ramifications of that for my story and wrote it down. Half a page later, with that idea already in my head, I read something else that fitted with it, so I noted that down. And again. And again. Ten minutes later I was spending more time making notes than actually reading. That engine I mentioned earlier had got warmed up, and now it was really rolling. One of the most important fuels for creativity is more creativity.

So, messy engine metaphors aside, what’s the point of this? It’s that ideas and creativity don’t just happen, and realising that, working on mine over time and in each moment, has really helped me. Inspiration doesn’t just happen. You make it happen.

*And also because I’m something of a history nerd – there’s a reason I studied it solidly for six years.