Tag Archive | Inspiration

The Five Objects Formula

img_5060

When I was young, my dad belonged to a film club which used to have “Five Objects” competitions every few months. The filmmakers would be given a list of five completely unrelated objects, and they had to make up a story which included all five things. Each filmmaker had to film their own story, edit it, lay the soundtrack and screen the finished product on the night of the competition.

The objects could be introduced in any order, but they had to be more than just arbitrary set dressing in the background – they had to actually play a part in the story. My dad was a good filmmaker and he had a vivid imagination, so his films always did well in those competitions.

I remember the fun we had making the first one. The objects were:

  • a pound of sausages
  • a briefcase
  • a bunch of keys
  • a screwdriver
  • a piece of string.

For days my dad puzzled over scenarios about dogs running off with sausages. Which of our dogs would we use? How could we train it to do something like sausage-stealing and yet prevent this from becoming a habit? And so on.

One morning, one of my dad’s work colleagues ranted to him about the wasted evening he and his wife had experienced the night before because an encyclopaedia salesman had come to his house and bored them almost to death about how they needed to invest in their children’s future by buying a decent set of encyclopaedia for their home. (Yes, this was the 70s when such things existed.)

This gave my dad the spark he needed and before long he had his story:

  • Housewife preparing a pound of sausages, putting them into the frying pan and setting it on the stove.
  • Doorbell rings. She leaves the kitchen and goes to the door.
  • There is an encyclopaedia salesman on the doorstep. He talks his way in with his briefcase of book examples and his car keys.
  • Once inside her lounge he doesn’t stop talking, impressing upon her how important the books will be to her family, blah, blah.
  • She tells him she’s not interested. He takes a long time to accept this, but finally packs up the books and puts them back into his briefcase.
  • Unseen by him, he catches the edge of his key-ring in one of the books and the keys go into the briefcase too.
  • The salesman picks up his briefcase to leave but can’t find his keys.
  • As he searches, the housewife suggests they may be in his briefcase. He tries to open it and realises that he can’t because it’s locked and the keys must be inside. He’s in despair.
  • She tells him not to worry and leaves the room. She comes back with a screwdriver.
  • The salesman forces the lock of the briefcase, retrieves his keys with great relief and then realises that he can’t shut the briefcase because the lock is broken.
  • The housewife leaves the room again and comes back with a long piece of thick string. Together they tie the string around the briefcase…
  • … and that’s when she smells the burning sausages and runs from the room in the other direction.
  • She runs back in, holding a smoking frying pan, and yelling at him. He picks up his briefcase and his keys and runs out the door with the angry housewife in pursuit, still holding the smoking frying pan, trailing smoke behind her.

Sometimes my dad would throw his ideas around and ask us for feedback, and when he had the story ready to film, we would all be on hand to move furniture around, help with finding props, move lights on stands, and even become part of the background if he was filming on a not-busy-enough street (which wasn’t necessary with this one).

For this story – which he called “The Salesman” – he had a great cast: the housewife was played by my mother, and the salesman was played by my dad’s work colleague, complete with three of the books he had been talked into buying for the future of his children. (He knew exactly how to do the salesman talk because he had been duped by it himself.)

My dog even had a cameo role running up to the gate as the salesman left. (At least we didn’t have to teach the dog how to steal sausages.) We used burning rags for the burning sausages and ate the real ones for supper that night.

I know this isn’t the place to wax lyrical about how much I loved all of this – living out my own movie-set/backstage fantasies – but long before we reached the actual filming of any of the stories, we had the fun of dreaming up scenarios like this, thinking of ideas to suit other lists of objects. I’ve been doing this my whole life, really – and I never get tired of it. It finally occurred to me not so long ago that it’s a good way to build up a basic story for a novel.

It’s always fun to throw a bunch of seemingly unconnected bits and pieces into a crucible of some kind and see what comes out of it. If I look at five basic objects or ingredients for a good story, they would have to be:

  • an interesting place
  • a little bit of history
  • a hint of danger
  • an historical artefact or work of art
  • the timeframe or deadline of a ticking clock.

Add into the mix two characters each with some kind of desire (and because I write romance they need to later develop a shared desire for each other), and a bad guy with crazy ambitions, and there’s bound to be a story worth writing.

I love all these enticing ingredients and the challenge they present. I’m a writer of long, rather than short, stories – I have too much that I want to throw into the pot.

When I look back at all of my successful novels, each one has those five ingredients. Even my historical novella From Daisy with Love (which is a romance but not a mystery), has all of the ingredients – the historical artefact would be the box of written letters and objects for a future generation to find, and the bad guy (although slightly removed) would be Kaiser Wilhelm II who was responsible for the war which changed the lives of all the characters.

However, if I look at my two earlier trunk novels it is now easy for me to see why they didn’t work and were never good enough to be published. They are both missing several of the vital ingredients. One day I still mean to re-write both of them but don’t hold your breath because newer stories pop into my head all the time.

To those who love reading books written by others: do you recognise any of these five ingredients in your favourite books? I do. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Forgotten Garden, The Goldfinch, My Brother Michael, The Girl You Left Behind, and so many more, from the Amelia Peabody series right back to some of the Enid Blyton books I used to read as a child.

To any writers reading this: what five ingredients do you consider essential in your novels?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 1: Starting

img_5052

My original intention when I started blogging four years ago, was to share writing tips with other like-minded writers, but there were already many writers doing this, and most of them knew a good deal more about the craft than I did. So instead of adding to the white noise of advice that surrounds writers, I decided to write for my potential readers instead. While some of my followers are writers, most are not.

Among the questions readers ask writers are: where do we get our ideas from, and how do we start writing. Every writer has their own way of answering these questions, and the writing process is not the same for all of us.

Since I am about to embark on writing a new novel, I thought it might be fun to share my unique process with my readers, in real time, as it happens. It takes me ages to write a novel, so please don’t hold your breath. Over the next year or so, from time to time I’ll let you know where I am in the process and how things change as they meander along the slow path to completion.

When I start a new novel, it’s because something in my brain has been triggered by a “what if” scenario. I’ll imagine a situation or an action in which something hasn’t gone according to plan, and I’ll think up possible unexpected after-effects which might open a can of worms worthy of a full-length novel. Very often, the original idea will come to me because I am in a particular place, or because I’m thinking about a place I’ve been to. To be honest, many places I visit cause me to think, “This would be a good setting for a novel,” but not all of them are practical.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance I brought together two great loves of my life: Greece and theatre. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, and so it was with this combination. I’ve had a fascination with ancient Greek theatre since the age of about eight. All my later history of art studies, my drama studies, my first visit to Greece where I watched a performance in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus itself, plus my first two decades of working in the theatre industry all conspired to concoct an adventure that begins and ends in that great historic place.

Benicio’s Bequest began when an image jumped into my head one afternoon after tea with a fellow writer. While travelling down in the elevator I had a sudden thought about what I might do if the gentleman next to me in the elevator were to suddenly collapse on the floor with a knife protruding from his chest. (Yeah, I know – you’re probably wondering what was in that tea and cake…) As the unsuspecting gentleman left the elevator to walk towards the car park, I decided that a beautiful courtyard would be more a more dramatic setting than a car park.

While driving to work that afternoon I fantasized about a sunny courtyard, preferably somewhere old and steeped in history, possibly in Europe. Spain was my first choice, but I had never been there so I chose Italy instead. Which courtyard? Well, it had to be small, intimate and a finite space with only one exit, so I chose the romantic courtyard in Juliet’s house, in Verona. The murder would be a planned hit, and would be done with a gun, not a knife, so the gunman could do his deed from a distance and make his escape. Why not shoot from the balcony itself?

I liked the idea of turning the romantic setting for the world’s most famous balcony scene into the scene of a shocking murder. Into my head came the accompanying idea that the heroine who witnesses it is not in a particularly romantic mood because she is there on her own, having called off her wedding. She has, of course, used the planned honeymoon as a solitary holiday because it was too late to get a full refund and she needed to get her head around her own problems. Needless to say, witnessing a murder doesn’t exactly help her do that. Or maybe it does? The chain of events that this sets off provides the fodder for the rest of the novel.

My newest novel takes place in Oxford, England – a place I visited and loved many years ago. An old stone house, a partially ruined church next door to it, the grounds of Blenheim Palace beyond the back fence, and the charming pub up the road will all form part of the setting.

At this early stage, even while images of setting and romantic places flit through my brain into half-imagined scenarios, there is only a vague story idea. I know that it will be a romantic story, and there will be some kind of historic mystery to solve, but first I need to find some characters who will suit both the setting and the story that grows around them.

What Road Trips Have Taught Me About Writing

IMG_4047

On all my holidays and road trips since 1982 I have written a daily travel diary, detailing each day’s events, names of places, what I saw, felt, did, bought, and so on. This has stood me in good stead when writing novels because with all those detailed memories plus whatever current info I can find about those places on Google, I can draw up a fairly accurate depiction of what life is like in that particular place today.

Hand in hand with the travel diary text, there are always photographs. Loads of them. Back in the days of using ordinary film, I was more careful about what I snapped. There was no instant viewing or opportunity for immediate retakes if you didn’t like the first picture, because of the delay in having the pictures printed – a process usually done once you reached home after the trip, and by then on an even more limited post-holiday budget.

When I hiked the Otter Trail back in 2003, I considered getting a digital camera to take with me, but when someone pointed out that, with no electricity for five days, I wouldn’t be able to recharge the battery nightly, I stuck to my trusty old Ricoh.

In 2011 I attended a writing seminar on adventure and travel writing, where one of the presenters advised us to invest in an ordinary digital camera and to take photographs of absolutely everything along the way. “You don’t have to print them all,” he told us, “and even if they’re not good enough to accompany an article in a travel magazine, they will always aid you in remembering places and incidents.”

Boy, was he right! I bought myself an entry-level digital Canon just before my first trip to Australia in 2012 and have used it to the nth degree ever since. The only downside is that the more photos I take, the more important it is to remember to recharge the camera’s battery before the next day’s excursion.

I’ve just returned to Melbourne after a two week road trip down the eastern side of Australia with one of my closest friends. Some days were so busy that we were too tired by the evening to write our daily notes, so this often didn’t happen until days later. Thanks to the photographs acting as reminders, not a single precious memory has been muddied or lost, from Arrawarra Beach to Mount Kosciuszko.

IMG_4068IMG_4644

Some days my photo count was over 140, particularly the day we saw the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge! Although only a handful of these found their way into Facebook, blog posts and tweets, they are all on my computer waiting to jog my memory when the time comes.

IMG_4358IMG_4261

I love being a writer because I can justify anything I do by calling it research. My recent road trip definitely holds fodder for a future novel. At the moment I have no idea what that next novel will be about – anything from a mob of  wild kangaroos to the story of Ned Kelly – but I’m certain it will be set somewhere in those 2400 kilometres we travelled through the south eastern part of Australia.

IMG_4654IMG_4719

I believe that being out of your comfort zone and travelling with an open mind are the two key ingredients for finding potentially limitless possibilities for the next novel.

If there is a common thread running through my novels, it is the fish-out-of-water theme. My novels are never autobiographical, but just like my fictional heroines, I enjoy being a single person in an unfamiliar place, ripe for experiencing the adventure of a lifetime.

Not knowing in advance what the next novel is about has never stopped me from gathering useless information for it. In common with other novelists, I have a system for filing away ideas, snippets of news, and notes about certain skills I will never personally achieve, but which my characters might well be masters of. Like a jigsaw puzzle where I can create my own pieces, the next novel will take shape when the time is right, and it will be made up of all sorts of previously unconnected pieces.

I firmly believe that part of any creative process is the melding together of various elements that would be unrelated in another context. The real trick is to find that elusive strand of gold that weaves it all together successfully and makes it shine for the reader.

Wonder-Filled Inspiration

As a teenager I dreamed of overseas travel, yearning to see not only the scenery, but the artworks and architecture of the world.

I was fourteen when television started in our country, and one of my most vivid memories is of watching Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. The series was almost ten years old by then, but it didn’t matter. Each episode fascinated me, and there was plenty of time to mull it over before the next because they were broadcast every alternate Sunday evening. During the weeks between, I searched the school library, looking up the artists and the buildings, hoping to see colour pictures, because our television was – of course – black-and-white!

Yes, if you’re wondering how I was able to appreciate such things on an ancient monochrome television (of if you’re baffled by why I took the trouble to page through actual dusty books to see tiny reproductions), let me assure you, it wasn’t a chore!

Six months after I graduated from university with my arts degree, I went to Europe with my boyfriend – a man I met soon after graduation, and with whom I shared a passion for theatre, art, literature, old churches, galleries, castles and in fact, anything of historical interest. We did the whole Grand Tour, just like the Victorians but in different clothing (and in slightly more modern transport). We also fought a lot, but the good memories outweigh the bad…

Anyway, back to the art. We walked around Michelangelo’s magnificent David, saw his Pieta from a distance across the crowd, and were able to get up close and personal with his Moses on that first trip. Together we stood beneath Juliet’s balcony in Verona, took a gondola ride through Venice and watched the glass blowers on the island of Murano. We picked our way across the stones of the Acropolis, gawped up at the Parthenon and saw a modern day performance in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus. Later, in the Louvre, we craned our necks to see the Mona Lisa and walked unimpeded around the Venus de Milo. We crammed a lot into six weeks!

A few years ago when I found Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series on DVD, I bought it immediately. Didn’t even check the price. I took it home and wallowed in the luxury of the entire thing once again – bit by bit, usually on a Sunday night, and with my own collection of art books and overseas photographs to hand. It’s a toss-up as to whether the most striking thing was the ability to rewind, pause, zoom and relive the best bits, or the fact that I could now see it all in glorious colour, and on a bigger, clearer screen!

IMG_1906

Much of the series I had forgotten in the intervening thirty years so I was able to feast on its delights anew, but I also realised just how much had remained in my subconscious during that first trip to Europe, guiding me through the Uffizi gallery and the Louvre, up the leaning tower of Pisa, and past Michelangelo’s timeless works.

Six years after that first trip, I took a second one and I’m not ashamed to say that I revisited many of the same places with my three travelling companions – even managed to drag two of them up Pisa’s leaning tower, back in the days when one could still go up it and stand in front of the huge bells on the top. Something about those incredible, old places fired me up and inspired in me all sorts of romantic and creative dreams. It was as if I couldn’t get enough of the roots of western civilisation. In retrospect it was just as well that I stored all the memories up inside me because I’ve never since been able to afford to go back.

After twenty years of not venturing beyond the borders of my own continent, my family’s circumstances changed a few years back. I’ve now been to Australia three times. On my first visit I feasted on Shakespeare under the Stars, drank in Melbourne’s unique architecture, mosaics, domes, arcades and bridges, and shed tears at the Shrine of Remembrance. In Federation Square I visited Melbourne’s monument to film: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), and later sampled the culinary arts of Lygon Street.

IMG_0311

I gazed at bronze and marble sculptures all over the city, contemporary graffiti in the lanes and sand sculptures in Frankston.

IMG_0143

On my second visit to Melbourne two years later I listened to local pianists tinkering on the keys of brightly decorated pianos left out in the open for an initiative called “Play me, I’m Yours.” IMG_0999

I drifted around the Tyabb Packing House with its acres of antiques, wore down my shoe soles in the Melbourne Museum and both venues of the National Gallery of Victoria. In the larger of these, I found myself gazing in wonder at Impressionist paintings, as well as sculptures by Rodin and Henry Moore. Two visits to this gallery weren’t enough to see everything so two days after arriving back in Melbourne on my third trip, I legged it down St Kilda Road in the pelting rain for another drool!

So what does this have to do with writing? Nothing on the surface, but it has everything to do with inspiration. I am well aware that not everyone shares my passion for European history or western civilisation (or whatever other name you choose to call it, particularly in my home country where anything western is now regarded as the work of colonial devils) but it has always been – and will always be – a part of my long-ago heritage, my current mental make-up, and my inspiration for the novels I write.

History evolves as fast as it’s created, but some things linger longer in our subconscious than others. Certain stories resonate or touch us more than others. My great triggers are the Trojan War, related tales by Homer and the Greek playwrights, ancient Rome, the bittersweet romance of Romeo and Juliet, Renaissance art, the First World War and absolutely anything to do with theatre.

The list is long and should provide me with plenty of ammunition to conjure up stories to write for the rest of my writing career, but for anyone out there whose triggers are gratuitous violence and destruction, chemistry or science, corporate banking or politics, the wonders of accounting, mathematical skills, motherhood, babies or courtroom drama – well, I think you’ve probably guessed by now how I feel about those. Everyone has their own favourite corridors in the library of life, so you won’t find too many of those subjects in my book bag.

If everyone loved the same things I do, I’d be a better-selling author by now because more readers would be as enthralled with my subject matter as I am. I’m old enough to know and accept that this will never be the case, and I don’t write the type of high adventure favoured by Dan Brown, John Grisham and James Patterson so my mysteries are more whimsical, more romantic and consequently a lot less popular.

For those loyal readers who worry that I might change my style and jump on bandwagons that include fifty shades of erotica, sci-fi or fantasy, police procedurals or vampires, fear not! I will always be here with my own peculiar brand of history-soaked, romantic mysteries.

Following hot on the heels of my three previous works (the stories of a South African set designer and a Greek inspector of antiquities; a World War I letter writer and the two soldiers in her life; an art teacher and an Italian sculptor) comes the story of a romance in Melbourne between a travel agent and a Lygon Street pianist.

Watch this space…