This time around, I’ve been thinking about inspiration: where do ideas come from and how they become stories. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the places that have inspired me and how setting and story are woven together.
I’m lucky enough to be typing this at one of my favourite ever settings – one of my favourite places in the whole world – but more of that in a bit.
Where do stories come from?
… or rather where do MY stories come from?
They have many different origins. A story might stem from another story: a fairytale or legend, a newspaper article, a tale someone tells me, or an experience I’ve had myself. Sometimes a story is sparked by a person I meet, or one I stand next to in the queue for the Ladies, or glimpse in a passing car. Sometimes it evolves from a song on the radio, a photograph in a magazine, or a toy left lying on the kitchen floor. Whatever begins the process, most of my stories then develop around a feeling, a pervading mood or shift in moods that I feel compelled to express.
The power of places
The right setting brings a story to life; it presents new possibilities for the plot and interacts with the characters to build emotion and atmosphere. In my story ‘Lulu’s London’ (available here) I used the various tourist venues and the London Underground as a familiar background to contrast with Lulu’s own emotional journey.
Sometimes the story grows from the place itself. Many of mine have their origins in particular settings: an idyllically remembered holiday cottage nestling at the foot of the downs; a seaside theme-park overrun with noisy children and harassed parents; a luxurious yet sterile hotel in an otherwise seedy situation.
Some settings are particularly powerful; their atmosphere is so tangible it feels like you have only to reach up and pluck a story out of the air. Today I am writing in just such a place.
Godremamog Mill sits on the Pembrokeshire-Carmarthenshire border in a peaceful tree-lined valley where the Mamog flows into the Cych river. Built as a woollen mill in 1885, the watermill is now run as holiday lets by the warm and welcoming Chris and Sam Hogarth (learn more here). Today my lap top and I are ‘cwtch’ed* up in the mill with views of the river and the wooded hillsides. Outside my husband and children are helping our friends Chris and Sam to clear the woodland walk up the side of their valley.
This place is a feast for the senses. I can hear the river below my window – today it’s a happy, chuckling sort of sound, but it can be rushing and angry on a torrentially rainy November night. I can see blossom, bluebells, buttercups and a host of other flowers whose names I don’t know in the meadow that runs along the riverbank. I can smell the beginnings of the bonfire the others have built and my taste buds can imagine the sausages we’re having for our tea.
Over the last few years the Mill has been a great source of inspiration in diverse ways. ‘Little Hedgehog’s Halloween’ is a cosy tale for 5-7 year olds featuring the surrounding countryside and wildlife, including an otter sighted on the river bank. Conversely, ‘The Women of Pontwyll Mill’, inspired by a ruined chapel further up the valley, is a ghost story for a much older audience.
Just this morning another story was born when my daughter picked up a strange piece of metal shaped like a leaf. The metal leaf was in the undergrowth in front of a natural well recently discovered in the hill side, and led to an even more exciting discovery: a crown (possibly iron) of once gilded leaves. We’re thinking twentieth-century hippies rather than iron-age druids, but my imagination is busily ticking away. After all, the Cych valley does feature in The Mabinogion** …
Truth or Fiction?
When I wrote ‘Lulu’s London’ it was important to me that my readers should be able to use their knowledge and experience of London. The locations are shorthand clues to the story and therefore must be depicted as their true selves.
By contrast, the setting for ‘The Women of Pontwyll Mill’ exists only on the page. Pontwyll Mill is not Godremamog Mill, although the latter is clearly the inspiration and there are many similarities between the buildings and the surrounding countryside. The setting suggests the essence, the special something that inspired the original idea, but thereafter is as much a servant to the story as are the characters and is moulded and altered to suit both the plot and the atmosphere.
The Crown of Leaves
Now a new story awaits – or rather two. At least two. My daughter requires a tale of fairy folk who live at the well up the hillside, but my imagination is working its way back to Pontwyll Mill and its ghosts …
* cwtch is a Welsh word for an affectionate cuddle
** The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh legends compiled from late Medieval texts in the nineteenth century. Read more about it here.