I’ve written lots of books and people often ask me where I get my ideas from. The answer I always give them is: everywhere. Now I know this is not a very helpful thing to say, because there’s an awful lot of everywhere. Everywhere is, let’s face it, all around us. You can’t move without bumping into a bit of everywhere because it’s, well, everywhere. What I mean is that there’s an idea for a story to be found wherever you look and whatever you do. That’s why, if you want to write stories, you should try to be interested in as many different things as you can. You never know where your next story is coming from.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot while I’ve been writing my new book, River Stories. It’s a collection of stories inspired by some of the great rivers of the world. Before people were writing stories down, they were telling each other stories, and those stories came from everywhere; from the rivers and the trees and the mountains – from the world that was all around them.
Sometimes, they told stories because they wanted to explain things to themselves. Nowadays, science can tell us how rivers form, but thousands of years ago in Ancient China people didn’t know, so they told wonderful stories instead. One was about a battle between two good dragons and two fire dragons. The good dragons defeated the fire dragons when they had the brilliant idea of turning themselves into water. The water put out the fire dragons and they vanished in clouds of hissing steam. Unfortunately, the good dragons were so tired from fighting, that they couldn’t turn themselves back into dragons. Instead, they became rivers: the Yellow river and the Yangtze river.
Some stories are warnings. Remember all those fairy tales about taking care when you go into the woods? You mustn’t trust the crafty wolf, or the witch with her house made of gingerbread. Those stories are told all over the world in different ways. For instance, in the forests of South America, they tell tales about an evil spirit whose whistle is heard in the trees. You mustn’t listen to it or you’ll get lost and never find your way back home again.
Other storytellers take things they’ve seen and heard and turn them into something magical and mysterious. While sailing down the river Rhine in Germany, a teenage girl called Mary saw a castle. She heard strange tales about the man who lived there and she turned them into the story of the cursed scientist Victor Frankenstein.
Then there are the tales that explorers brought back from the parts of the world that were new to them. A Spaniard called Francisco followed a strange river in search of “El Dorado”, the Man of Gold. Francisco never found the man, but instead he had all kinds of adventures. One day, he was attacked by fearsome female warriors. When he got home and told his emperor about it, the emperor was reminded of the Amazons, the female warriors in Greek myths, and he named the river the “Amazon” in their honour.
Monsters and marvels, warriors and warnings – they are all around you, they are everywhere. You just have to look. Be open, be curious, be interested – and enjoy the strange and funny and magical world that is all around you. That’s where countless stories are waiting for you, waiting to be found and told.
River Stories by Timothy Knapman is published 6th February 2020 by Egmont UK.