I’m planning a new writing project at the moment, and it’s at that delicious stage of quivering on the edge of my consciousness, a blur of colours and half-formed characters; some scenes that are sharp and clear, some that shimmer with possibility, a whole lot more that are just a scrap of intention. While I’m brewing the ideas, I use lots of different stimuli to help the ideas to form – visiting possible locations and taking lots of photographs; acquiring objects that will keep me literally in touch with characters and places; eating and drinking the things my characters eat and drink; and putting together a playlist.
I use my playlist to conjure up a particular period of time or to evoke a place, to create the emotion I'm writing about, or simply to get me in the mood for writing. I asked some writer friends if they also use music, and they all said, yes, they use music to enhance or create mood while they're writing. If you've ever cried listening to Tavener, or found yourself jigging in your seat when Shania Twain comes on the radio, then music could help your writing, too.
Imagine your story or novel is being made into a film. What sort of music will be playing in the background at different points? What will be the theme tune for each of your characters? Choose music that moves you, that makes you dance, sing, cry, reflect. Play this while you're writing, or in preparation for a writing session. Music that spooks you, cheers you, or that simply has memories for you is good, as you have an emotional connection with it that will come out in your writing.
I like to compile a playlist for each book I write. I have a theme tune for each character, and several pieces that reflect the emotions in different parts of the novel. I also have themes that reflect the way other characters feel about each other. For example, my private eye heroine Eden Grey has the theme tune of Billy Joel's 'She's Always a Woman'.
I put all the tracks onto my MP3 player, go out for a long walk with my headphones on, and when I come back my brain is thrumming with the atmosphere of my novel. I find I get into the writing much more easily and the words flow better when I've primed myself with music first.
I also like to ask myself what sort of music each of the characters in my books listens to. Do they chill out with some smoky jazz, or get churned up by Beethoven? Finding your characters' musical tastes can get you into their heads, and then their thoughts, desires and fears are only a semiquaver away.
What’s on your writing playlist?
We all have days when the brain is sluggish, inspiration has gone AWOL, and the words simply refuse to flow onto the page. On these occasions help is at your fingertips, with a range of apps aimed at writers. The major benefit of these apps is that you only have to carry your phone and you have access to inspiration whenever and wherever you need it.
Below I discuss the apps I use to spark ideas and to get into the mood for writing. Just to be clear: all the apps are free (though some may offer in-app purchasing), and I’ve not been given any incentive to review them.
These are the ones I use regularly:
Brainsparker is a general creativity app to help you think through a problem and come up with a range of different solutions. It generates a phrase or picture at random for you to mull over and inspire new insights on the problem you’re facing. For example, a picture of a clock might encourage you to revisit the timeline for your project or consider if you’ve allowed enough time to complete it. Phrases such as ‘reverse your priorities’ encourage you to stop thinking about the problem that’s on your mind, ask yourself what your priorities are, and what would happen if you focussed on something else.
I use Brainsparker whenever I feel stuck on a writing project, or if I feel stuck in life. For example, today Brainsparker offered me the advice ‘stop thinking, start doing’, which reminded me that it’s easy to get stuck in weighing things up and trying to second guess what the outcomes might be, and actually it’s best to simply get on with things.
Paperblanks gives you a journal prompt in a range of categories such as ‘just for fun’, ‘travel’, ‘personal/introspective’. An example of the last is ‘A time when I felt really brave was …’ An example from the category ‘Story a day’ is ‘Eureka, she shouted. I’ve finally found it.’
I use Paperblanks each morning when I do my writing practice. This is my equivalent of a musician practising scales and arpeggios: a warm-up simply to get words on the page. Sometimes it leads to a story but usually not. I use Paperblanks in two ways. Firstly, I simply copy out a random prompt and start writing and see where it leads me. I might find myself writing about a memory or I might find myself making something up. Secondly, I use it in the persona of one of my characters, as a way to get deeper into the character’s life. So if the prompt is ‘My favourite way to keep warm in the winter is …’ I write as though I’m the character. It’s been really fruitful to use it this way and I’ve got deeply into a new character I’m creating.
Fast Fiction Prompts
Fast Fiction Prompts generates a random character, setting and plot, and the challenge is to incorporate all of them into a story. Today’s random selection was: a werewolf, at sea, and a character’s video game addiction saves the world. The fun here is in stretching your imagination to find a way to include these disparate elements. Again, it might lead to a story that you can send to a competition, or it might not.
I use this app for a bit of fun and for the challenge of seeing if I can get all the elements into a story that sort of makes sense. It encourages me to write outside my comfort zone – I’ve never written a story about a werewolf and maybe once I get started I’ll find out I love writing about them. I use this app mostly as a writing warm up, or on those occasions when I have a vague sense of wanting to write ‘something different’ but no ideas about characters or plot.
Coffitivity is an app that provides background noise to your writing. Many writers like writing in cafes and find the bustle conducive to creativity. For those days when you can’t get to a café, Coffitivity provides the background hum of chatter, coffee machines and crockery. There are three settings in the free app: morning murmur, lunchtime lounge and university undertones. They’re all slightly different so you can find the right pitch and level of noise to suit your writing.
I use Coffitivity when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the thought of writing, the days when ‘writing’ is too big and scary and I need to convince myself I’m actually just playing with words. Sometimes I put the radio on in the background and persuade myself that I’m just doing a bit of scribbling whilst listening in. Once I’ve got the first sentence down I find I don’t hear any more of the radio but get caught up in what I’m writing. I get the same effect in cafes, and Coffitivity replicates that sense of not ‘writing’ but ‘scribbling in a café’ that helps me overcome the sense of overwhelm and get some words down on paper.
These are my favourite writing apps and how I use them, but there are hundreds of writing apps available. I’d love to hear which apps you use to get writing, overcome blocks or find inspiration. Tell me about them in the comments below.
My short story ‘Cat Chat’ is published today in the People’s Friend magazine, and in this post I’m going to write about where the idea for the story came from, and how I adapted and shaped my initial thought into the finished piece. Like many writers, I’m quite shameless about pinching stories from my family and friends. Often someone will tell me something and I’ll mentally file it away thinking, ‘I can do something with that.’ The ‘thing’ they’ve said might be a phrase or a comment, or it might be an anecdote. I never use other people’s stories in the same format they told them to me: I strip down the idea to find the bit that captured my imagination, then I play with it until I get a story, so the final story bears no resemblance to the original. This is how I did it with ‘Cat Chat’.
My family is one of pet-talkers: people who act as ventriloquist for the dog or cat. Maybe you’re one yourself, or maybe you’ve come across people like that, people who put on a special voice for the dog and conduct a conversation with it, seemingly oblivious to the fact they’re talking to themselves. Maybe you think it’s cute; maybe you think they’re bonkers. Anyway, in my house we talk for the cat. If you’re not sure what people actually say when they talk for the cat, here’s a typical exchange between me and my cat, Harriet:
Me: Look at that cute dog on the telly.
Harriet: I don’t approve of dogs. They’re not as good as cats.
Me: It’s a clever doggy, doing tricks.
Harriet: See what I mean? You’d never find a cat doing that. Imagine working for a living! Cats are far too clever.
When I met my husband, and he first heard me talking for my cats, he thought I was bonkers. Fast forward a couple of months and not only was he also talking for the cats, he’d adopted his own special voice for doing so. We were talking about his first reaction to hearing me talking for the cats when I realised there was a story in it.
Firstly, I needed a conflict. As it was a story about talking for a cat, there had to be a talker and someone who found it weird. And because I love writing stories for the People’s Friend that involve a grandmother and granddaughter, I went for those characters and had the grandmother as the cat-talker and the granddaughter worried about it. Now for the inciting incident, the thing that kicks off the story. As the granddaughter has known about the cat-talking all her life, why does she suddenly find it weird? Answer: she’s a teenager who’s just got a boyfriend and is worried what he’ll think about it and is scared he’ll dump her. To up the stakes and to add a touch of humour, I made the grandmother very gentle and the cat a bit of a thug:
“How’s my best boy then?” asked Nanna, bending to stroke Bandit.
“Alright, old girl. Where’s me grub?” said Bandit, in a low, gravelly voice and distinct East End gangsterish accent.
“You hungry, my poppet?”
“Starvin’! Me stomach finks me froat’s bin slit,” said Bandit.
The girl is determined that her boyfriend won’t ever meet Nanna, and Nanna is equally determined to meet the new boyfriend to give him the once-over and make sure he’s good enough. So there was the set-up. All of them nice characters but with genuine conflict arising from their personalities. Next I had to increase the conflict.
I like to vary the sources of conflict within stories, so if the inciting action comes from outside the main character (from another character or from a situation), the next conflict comes from within the character herself. In this case, I made her feel terrible guilt at wanting to keep Nanna and the boyfriend apart. She loves her Nanna, yet is embarrassed by her, and feels terrible about it. I twisted the knife a little to increase the conflict and (hopefully) get the reader to ask ‘How is this ever going to be resolved?’ by adding a scene where the girl tries to talk to her mother about her concerns:
That evening, in the car, I said, tentatively, “Mum, do you think it’s odd how Nanna talks for the cat?”
“She’s always done it.”
“I know, but is it weird, do you think?”
“Her mum, my grandma, was just the same,” Mum said, indicating the turning into our road. “I asked her about it once and she said her grandmother was just the same.”
Great, so it’s hereditary.
Mum pulled up outside our house and tugged on the handbrake. She glanced across at me. “Why? It doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“No, it’s just … I wondered what other people might think.” The blood flooded my cheeks as I said it.
“Stuff what other people think,” Mum said. “Come on! Homework, then dinner.”
Next I had to figure out how to resolve this. There are a few rules with story endings: they can’t come about by chance or fate, they must be the result of the character’s own actions, and they must be in character. I normally sketch out as many potential resolutions to the story as I can and then see which one is most natural but least likely to be spotted in advance by the reader. Keep them guessing to the end if possible! In this story I gave the grandmother a sore throat and the granddaughter speaks for the cat on her behalf, resolving both the original conflict (what will the boyfriend think about Nanna speaking for the cat?) and the emotional conflict (the guilt about feeling embarrassed).
If you’d like to read the whole story, it’s available now in the People’s Friend magazine dated 10th February, 2018.
OK, I admit it. My secret vice is watching crap TV. You know the sort of thing – programmes that are evidently low-budget, involve supposedly real people in real situations, on during the day time, and that make the mind boggle that such people exist. The kind of programme you don’t admit to watching even to your best friends. The sort of programme some people pretend they’ve never even heard of. Programmes that leave a warm hug of schadenfreude behind. Addictive, enjoyable, totally veg out crap TV that is surprisingly good for writers. And if you’re still not sure which programmes I’m talking about, I mean Botched, Tattoo Fixers, Secret Eaters, any programmes about doing up or selling houses, Bridezillas, Don’t Tell the Bride, any programmes where angry brides/ dance instructors bitch-slap each other, Wanted Down Under, Escape to the Country, Bargain Hunt, Crap in the Attic (sorry, Cash in the Attic), TOWIE, Real Housewives of Nowhere You’ve Ever Heard of, Posh Pawn, and anything that involves people with no brains and too much money spoiling pets/ children/ cars/ property.
Now before you come over all ‘you’d never catch me watching rubbish like that’, one, I don’t believe you – we’ve all been caught watching Hoarders at some point - and two, crap TV has a lot to offer us writers. Here’s how:
1. It’s all about conflict
When I teach writing workshops and explain that the energy in a story comes from the conflict, often people think that conflict means fighting, and that characters should be squabbling all the way through. Conflict actually just means anything that stands in the character’s way, whether it’s missing the bus, a letter not being delivered, illness, lack of self-belief, or getting soaked in the rain.
Crap TV is full of conflict. Take Secret Eaters (known in my house as Secret Scoffers), one of my favourites. In it, people who are overweight keep a food diary in which they record everything they eat. The diary always shows that they eat nothing but carrot sticks and lettuce leaves. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, a team of private investigators has rigged up their home with CCTV, they follow them every step they go, and log every single mouthful. Low and behold those mouthfuls turn out to be cake, chips, pizza, beer and kebabs. Confronted by their own self-delusion, they instantly mend their ways and drop a stone in two months.
Here’s the conflict: wanting to lose weight but being unable to do so, and unable to see where you might be going wrong. Deluding yourself that you eat a healthy diet and ignoring the fact that biscuits still count even if you eat them in secret. Being confronted with your own bad habits. Being followed by a private detective.
Or how about those ‘My house is a tip but I can’t understand why no one wants to buy it’ shows? The people are desperate to move, have had the house up for sale for years, and no one has put in an offer. Along comes Mr or Ms Expert on Selling Houses, who instantly spots that they have Grandad stuffed and on display in an armchair in the sitting room. “Do you think the fact your dead grandfather is in the house might be putting people off?” the expert asks.
“But this is our house!” they cry. “This is how we like it.”
A painful amount of time later they are finally forced to concede that if they want to sell, their house has to be how other people want it to look, stuffed Grandpa is put into storage and magnolia is slapped on the walls. An offer comes in immediately.
Here’s a conflict that we’re all familiar with: wanting to move home but something’s in the way, whether it’s not being able to agree with our partners on what we want; not being able to afford a deposit; not being able to sell our current home. In a twist on the ‘not being able to sell’ theme, I once wrote a story based on my parents not wanting to sell their house. They'd put it up for sale but changed their minds, and persuaded the neighbours to behave objectionably every time someone came round for a viewing until they could take it off the market and not incur the estate agent’s fees. True. My reworking of this heart-warming tale appeared as ‘The Noisy Neighbours’ in That’s Life Fast Fiction Australia. My mother thinks I ought to give her the money I earned from it.
2. It shows you how other people live
Crap TV gives amazing insights into how other people live. Not just in a Jeremy Kyle ‘do such people really exist’ sort of way, but a ‘how much money have they got and why are they spending it on that’ sort of way. If you don’t know what it’s like to have an unfortunate tattoo, but have a character in your novel who is just that sort of person, watch Tattoo Fixers and you’ll get more than enough inspiration. If you don’t know what it’s like to have a gormless boyfriend, watch Don’t Tell the Bride.
Crap TV also shows you what people aspire to. Take Escape to the Country, possibly the best satire on the middle classes. In it, people with an astonishing amount of ready cash decide they’d like to swap city living for life in the country. They come up with a wish-list for their perfect property, and for every single one it goes like this: detached with character features; at least four large bedrooms; a large country kitchen (a kitchen the size of a football pitch will still not be large enough – how many friends do they have?); huge entertaining space; a cottagey feel; at least eight acres for bees/ chickens/ llamas/ vegetable plot.
And then there’s the glimpse into people’s homes, the stuff they have around them, and the way they live. If you need descriptions of interiors, head to crap TV to see how rooms are arranged, how ornaments are displayed, kitchens are used. Our friends tend to be similar to us, so when we have a character who’s totally different we can be at a loss to understand how they live. None of my friends are mega-rich housewives, but crap TV has plenty of them happy to show off their furniture, clothes, make-up and daily routine if I ever need to describe it in a story.
3. It gives you ideas for stories
Although a lot of crap TV is stage-managed, you can still find inspiration for stories there. I’ve already mentioned my story about selling houses, but I’ve also written and published a story based on Don’t Tell the Bride (it was called ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ and was published in the People’s Friend magazine). Watching the programme, I wondered what it would be like in real life (as opposed to TV life) if a girl couldn’t plan her own wedding and her fiancé had to do it. My story had the conflict of not knowing what he’d choose for the big day, the disappointment of seeing the dress he’d chosen, and the surprise ending, but steered clear of the money being spent on a lads’ week in Vegas, uncontrollable crying, and threatening to call it all off.
I have also written and published a story inspired by Antiques Road Trip, in which someone accidentally buys a very valuable antique at a car bootsale, and have drawn on the many programmes about people trying to eat healthily in a short story about how food and feeding people means different things to a mother and her daughter, published in Take a Break Fiction Feast as ‘Don’t Make Them Fat, Too’. That wasn’t my title, I hasten to add: the magazine made it up, changing it from my suggestion of ‘The Food of Love’.
The way I approach crap TV if I’m looking for inspiration is to imagine what the conflict/ problem would look like in a normal person i.e. not someone who’s been put into a set-up and had their lines scripted for them. Then I try a few reversals, so If the show is about twenty-somethings, I imagine a seventy year old in that situation. A grandad who gets an unfortunate tattoo? Then I think about telling it from a different perspective. What does the tattoo fixer think about the grandad? What does his granddaughter feel about it all?
Crap TV is a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and let’s face it, we all need some time when we switch off our brains and just wallow in other people’s problems and silliness. But if you get caught binge-watching Botched, you know what to say. “Oh this, it’s research. For my writing, don’t you know.”
Time for you to fess up. Let me know in the comments below which TV shows you’re strangely addicted to, and whether they’ve inspired a story.
Happy writing and watching,
I was looking through some old writing course notes the other day, and came across this advice: find the darkest place in your mind, and write about it. The advice continued: what's the darkest thing you can think of? Make it happen to your characters.
It set me wondering - what's the darkest thing I could think of, and is it wise to spend so much time dwelling on the dark side?
I'm currently writing the third Eden Grey mystery, and it starts with an almighty shocker of a first chapter. Rules of the game are if you start high octane, you have to maintain it - you can't slip into a gentle, cosy pace - so I needed a plot that would live up to the opening. I asked myself, "What's the darkest thing one person can do to another?" and I wrote a list. Then I found myself thinking, "If I take that and that, and combine them, I get something that's really dark."
Question is: should I?
In recent years there's been a trend in crime fiction towards ever more sadistic and violent crimes. Books that start in the murderer's mind and show you exactly how they're torturing the victim. Or that are in the victim's mind, and you experience the torture with them. I can't read this kind of material. It's too nasty and gratuitous, and I feel like a voyeur reading it. But could I write it? Probably.
When I'm writing, I find myself simultaneously caught up in the characters' heads, and at a remove from them. I can make terrible things happen to them, and be able to stand back from it all and consciously determine how to craft it. Graham Greene described this as 'a splinter of ice in the heart' - the writer's ability to take a tragedy and turn it into entertainment. Because however literary or artistic our writing is, on some level we're always aiming to entertain our readers, otherwise they'll put the book aside.
The splinter of ice in my heart enables me to write dispassionately about proper nasty stuff - child abuse and people smuggling and murder. And it's only later that I look at what I've written and wonder if maybe I need psychological help. The first time I met my agent, she said to me, "You know, if you writers just got yourselves good psychiatrists, you wouldn't have to write all this crime." Where's the fun in that?
So my challenge is to go as dark as I dare, but be careful not to fall into the trap of writing nasty scenes just for the sake of it. A scene that explores the dark side must have a point to it. In crime fiction, the darker the crime, the more there is at stake, and the more that's demanded of the hero. There's normally a resolution - the baddy gets caught and brought to justice - so the reader is relieved that no matter how much the dark side of human nature upsets the social order, there's always restitution. Society is stronger than evil.
Lurking with my dark side makes me confront what scares me most about human nature, but because this is fiction, it's a safe place for me and the reader. And unlike real life, I get to make it better - my protagonist Eden Grey will face evil and overcome it. The greater the evil she faces, the greater the relief for both me and reader that the thing we fear the most can - ultimately - be overcome.
I always think that if I can get a character's name right, then the character is much easier to write. Once I've got their name, they're real to me, and spring off the page. But getting that name in the first place can be tricky.
I'm the sort of writer who hears her characters. They talk to me, argue with me, and go off and do things that I hadn't planned. And when I'm in the early stages of writing a book, and finding out who the characters are, they often have their own opinions about what they're called. Initially, the character of Aidan in Paternoster was called Matthew. But he didn't like being called Matthew, and grumbled about it, arguing that 'I'd better not shorten it to Matt.'
So there I was with a loud character but I didn't know what his name was. So I went to my book of baby's names, and flicked through the pages, trying out names I liked on this opinionated little so-and-so until he agreed that he liked being called Aidan. And there was no question of shortening it to Ade. Once I'd got his name, he was off and running. Next was my protagonist, the character who is now Eden Grey, and she wasn't easy to find at all.
The trouble with Eden is that she's self-contained. She's used to keeping secrets, working undercover, and keeping her own counsel, so getting her to open up to me was tricky. Originally she had a very old fashioned name, and I wrote the first few chapters with my private eye called Thora Harte. But Thora Harte was very safe, very measured, and frankly, very dull. A new name was needed, but no matter how much I tried to prize it out of her, she just shrugged at me and said, 'It's not my real name anyway, so it doesn't matter.'
I tried rewriting the chapters with various different names, looking for a name that was punchy, exciting, and different. And eventually Eden Grey stepped onto the page. As soon as I had the name I knew it was right. Two short words, only three syllables, and that repeated 'e'. And as Eden Grey, she certainly wasn't boring. I started to rewrite, and within minutes she was rescuing a child, wrestling a beefy man for her camera, and dreaming about her glory days undercover.
And now I can't imagine her being called anything else.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.