Where does finding a new story come from? Sometimes the beginning is no more than a whisper in my ear, a voice that says, “Oh that looks interesting. I think I’ll explore that.” Usually I tell myself not to be so ambitious.
“That subject’s much too difficult,” I think. “I don’t know enough about it. I’d never be able to imagine it properly.”
Sometimes, I think, “I couldn’t possibly write that story without going to some scary place to find out what it’s really like.”
I put the idea out of my mind, but it nags away at me until I’ve booked my air ticket, got my visas, packed my sunhat, emergency medical kit and a stash of notebooks and am on my way. With Welcome to Nowhere this meant getting myself a job in a refugee camp in Jordan. With The Garbage King it meant befriending a gang of street boys in Addis Ababa.
The problem is that once a story takes root in your mind you can’t get rid of it. You just have to start the hard work of making it grow. This involves:
- Creating your characters: letting them slowly walk into your life so they can tell you about themselves, introducing them to each other and seeing what they do. If the main character is clear in your mind, the supporting cast will emerge. This is not a process to hurry! It can take time.
- Visualising places: imagining every corner of the house or village or city street or refugee camp where the story takes place, smelling the smells, hearing the sounds, feeling the heat and cold and wind on your skin, the squelch of mud or the clatter of pebbles underfoot.
- Helping the plot of the story to unfold. It’s not always easy to hold the reins of the action. It’s like being the driver of a team of restive horses, guiding them away from blind alleys and tempting new directions, keeping the great destination of the end of the story in sight.
But apart from writing novels, I’d found great delight in retelling folk stories. Some years ago, I made five long journeys to the far corners of Ethiopia to meet story tellers and listen to their tales. I learned that the strands in the great skein of world stories are woven together so intricately that it’s impossible to tell where they originated. A story that appears in the Bible might have a counterpart in an Anuak story on the remote Ethiopian border with Sudan. A Somali story might be strangely similar to Hansel and Gretel. And everywhere the great stories by Rumi, the mystic philosopher and poet of medieval Persia, appear in different forms, from China to France to Syria. I’ve done a version of one of his stories myself. Grobblechops wasn’t hard to write. The development of Rumi’s gorgeous fragment just leaped into my head and all I had to do was write it down.
The worst times of writing are awful. You feel frustrated, lonely and a failure. The best times are wonderful. You’re on fire with ideas and feelings and the story you’re writing flows through you as if fire was in your veins sending sparks and crackles down on to the page.