In my new book, The Fire Maker, a twelve-year-old boy named Alex, who dreams of being a famous stage magician, stumbles across three fire spirits living in a neighbour’s garden and realises that some magic is real. That’s a good way of describing the story. Neat. Tidy, even.
But it didn’t start out that way. In fact, it started with the painting of a tree my wife gave me for my birthday a few years ago – an image I felt was just looking for a story to live in. It also started with a walk through some local woods and a group of children sprinting past me. And it started a couple of years before any of that when I was researching Arabic folklore for a stage adaptation I was planning of One Thousand and One Nights.
It started with a seemingly endless post office queue. It started with a small, angry-looking man on a train who had black eyes and the fiercest gaze I’ve ever seen. It started with a magic set at my grandparent’s house when I was a child that I loved but never had the patience to master. It started with a course I went on about something or other that happened to be taught by an ex professional magician.
So, you see, I never set out to write the book that I eventually wrote. It didn’t start with a big, complete image of what it was going to be. For some writers perhaps, the whole thing is like a jigsaw puzzle – they know what the picture should look like and they’re just fitting the pieces together. But for me it’s more like a collage. All these unconnected and random ideas and pieces of information live in the back of my head until one or other of them jostles forward and asks to be stuck on.
Of course, after that there’s discipline and editing to shape a story that works. But at first, it’s just about gathering the wood you need to get the fire going. So, for my story starter:
Think about yesterday. Think of a stranger you saw, maybe in the street, and make them your character. Give them a name.
Now, remember the last time you were freezing cold. Where were you? Take your character and put them in that place. What are they wearing? How are they acting? Don’t worry about why they’re there.
Now, think about the last thing that made you feel frightened and put whatever that is into the scene with your character. How do they react? What do they do next?
That’s the start of a story, and I bet you have a hundred other little bits of collage paper you can stick onto it as you go.
The Fire Maker is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House Books)
Follow Guy Jones on twitter @guyjones80