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The Berlin Writing Prize - 3000 words fiction/non-fiction on the theme 'Home is Elsewhere'.
Prize is a one-month luxury writing residency in Berlin.
The mood and atmosphere of a story is like the flavour of a soup.
The mood and atmosphere of a story is like the flavour of a soup.
It's not the vegetable nor the meat, it's the background, savoury broth.
My preferred genre for reading and writing is psychological suspense.
A psychological suspense story requires a strong mood. When the reader begins they must feel the tone of threat and lurking danger. These create the undertone from which spring the murderers, paedophiles and horrors of the past that our main character must pit themselves against.
The writer can select scenes for her characters that are narrow and dark - the cells full of disturbed inmates, the house normal on the outside and abnormal on the inside where a serial killer holds their victim prisoner. Think Hannibal Lecter.
We can add violent weather - pouring rain, a thunderstorm, a dark night where no one is on the street and anything is possible. Or a happy public holiday where the horrors of murder are contrasted with the air of celebration. The frame of mind of disturbed characters- psychotic, desperate - is reflected in the world around them.
It's not only the frame of mind of the killer which must be reflected in the mood of the story, the frame of mind of our heroine/hero must also be reflected. As they slide further into depression, anger and frustration this must show in the atmosphere. For instance, in deteriorating relationships with colleagues or partners, or in an internal dialogue which becomes increasingly bleak and self doubting. The heroine's own weaknesses have been stirred into action and we will see her struggle.
An important aspect of the atmosphere of suspense is the feeling of enclosure. The crucible is small. The walls are tall and the characters are metaphorically trapped. The story must play out and the space the characters are enclosed in will appear to shrink. The author accomplishes this not with delicacy in tempering the mood and atmosphere - the killer and the story will creep up on the main character, and, of course, they will do the same to the reader!
The impossible is a great source of story inspiration.
Let's split the impossible into two main aspects - the fantastical and the forbidden.
The fantastical is the stuff of science fiction. It fires fantasy worlds, super-human powers, advanced technologies, time travel.
The fantastical inspires major genres in fiction because it's not just that we love to read about worlds and people far beyond the ordinary, we actually crave to experience them.
We love existing in fantastical worlds. A world with challenges unlike our own. We want to travel space, meet demons, confront supernatural enemies, have super powers.
It makes us feel expanded, excited. We can get intoxicated on it.
Think Harry Potter (J.K.Rowling)- wizards, spells, potions, dementors.
Or I, Robot (Asimov) - so ahead of his time with intelligent, ethical and unethical robots who will challenge humans.
Then consider the forbidden. The forbidden is so alluring we simply cannot resist.
Forbidden love underpins the whole Romance genre.
Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare) is an ultimate example of forbidden love which demands to be satisfied but which leads to tragedy.
To that we can add forbidden actions.
In The Picture of Dorian Grey (Oscar Wilde), each time the main character takes part in debauch behaviour, treachery, even murder, his forbidden actions remain secret. It is only the portrait of Dorian Grey which reveals his true and evil character.
We can think of thrillers in this way because the anti-hero, that is the murderer or villain, is the one being pursued by our hero/ine. As a writer, we must ensure that our main character brings to justice those who have committed forbidden acts.
So to create a story around the impossible-
Imagine something you should never do. Ever.
Only you're tempted.
Then imagine a character in a story who does that very thing.....
Or better still who is forced to do that very thing in order to avoid something even worse...
For instance, is there a place you should avoid? Why should you avoid it?
What do you fear will happen if you go there?
What has happened to someone else who went there?
What if you found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time? Faced with an impossible choice?
Perhaps a choice concerning your own life or death, or the life or death of another?
This is the emotional side of impossible - where your main character must plumb the depths of their own psyche in order to survive.
Or imagine a forbidden person you should never speak to? Why?
What is the allure of that person for you?
What is their attraction?
What world changing, historical and unforgiveable events may happen if the two of you meet?
Or imagine a forbidden object which must never be found. Then someone finds it.
Who finds it? What is the consequence?
Were they meant to find it? Was it a trap?
This is the fundamental underpinning of Lord of the Rings (J.R.R Tolkien) where the discovery and then disposal of the desired but forbidden object (the ring of power) inspires the Fellowship of the Ring, the battles for Middle Earth, personal sacrifices and enduring friendships.
Contemplate the impossible in all its forms and disguises and you'll find a never-ending source of story inspiration.
I'm a great people watcher.
I like nothing better than to sit on a bench in the park, or at a café, and lightly clock the myriad social interactions around me. One of these observed moments, stored deeply and mostly forgotten, will often kick up a story idea. For instance, a heated argument between a couple, a flash of anger from a child, the sudden fear on a man's face, a moment of kindness from a stranger to the person behind them in the queue. It's the way people interact that's important - potency of feeling - smiles, humour, jealousy, attraction.
And then the trick is to expand on that moment and see where it goes.
For instance -
Why did that person give help when they didn't need to?
What might have spurred them to act?
What or who could the person they helped remind them of?
Did they help because they felt guilty?
And the recipient of the kindness, what will they go on to do ?
How might that one small interaction colour their whole day ?
Or what if it influenced their whole life, for good or for bad?
One idea may take hold and ring true.
That one idea acts a bit like the eye of a tornado - the eye of the tornado which holds the power to the whole story.
We all know of powerful books which are kicked off, or underpinned, or revolve around the potent love between siblings -
The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins) where Katniss volunteers for the reaping to protect her younger sister, Prim, from certain death
Private Peaceful, (by Michael Morpurgo) in which the tragic fate of two brothers during War time is retold by the younger, less courageous one
and on a slightly different note -
Sophie's Choice (by William Styron) in which the mother will ultimately reveal the terrible choice she made concerning her own two children, the horror of which has haunted her forever
My inspiration for Trading with Death came from the interaction between a sister and her sick sibling.
I witnessed such an interaction and it triggered me to imagine how such a scenario could play out. What might it lead to that would be world-changing for both? What might love and torture spur one to do for the other? What sacrifices might they make? How terribly deep did their feelings go? Could I create a story which revolved around that dynamic and those tearing emotions?
People watching is a wonderful way to fill your mind brim-full of snippets of interactions.
Snippets that seem meaningless and transitory. The family you sat next to on the bus will get off at the next stop, but the impressions they leave will linger and maybe the tiniest moment observed between them may weave itself into the beginnings of another story.
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