Sunday, May 30, 2004

Finding the nuggets in an ideas goldmine

(Everyday life is the mother lode of story ideas, writes William Trapman/Brian Byrne, but - just like panning for gold - you never know when you'll hit paydirt.)

"There's a girl buried on Butcher's Island."

He was one of the oldest men in Kilcullen, and he made that remark one day when we were talking about the river which flows through my home town.

I asked him to tell me more, but he shook his head. "There are people still alive from the families involved."

But the remark stayed in my mind. And one day I began writing a completely fictional story about how a girl could come to be buried on the island in the river. I used the locations I'd grown up with and knew intimately - I had played and swum as a child, and once nearly drowned, near Butcher's Island - and I set the story in the early part of this century.

The result was my first published short story, 'The Final Sin'.

When it appeared in a magazine, I brought it down to show the old man. He read it and looked up and smiled. "You set it a bit early, but you were very close to what really happened."

'The Final Sin' appears in my book 'Mariseo's House & other stories', and every one of the other sixteen yarns in the publication has its own story of how the idea was triggered.

'Trigger' is the right word. But it is a completely spontaneous mechanism. Most of the time I don't know what's going to be the kernel which will germinate into a full-grown piece of fiction . . . though I always know it afterwards. It can come from something I see, some thing someone says, something that is told to me secondhand. The sources are infinite, and elusive - if I try to look for a story idea, it just doesn't happen. And it can be a very short or a much longer time before what I call the 'story line' jiggles my brain and says: "I want out. I've something to tell you." And then the story writes itself.

Oh, not quite-there's the usual blood, sweat and tears . . . but the story will want out. And will come out.

The 'Mariseo's House & other stories' collection is a veritable goldmine of story line examples. The first story, 'Marching with the Saints', was triggered by a James Bond movie on TV: my wife and I were watching the one which has a New Orleans funeral in it, and she turned to me and said: "I'd like a jazz band like that at my funeral." Quite a while later the story pulled me, kicking and screaming, to my keyboard. The result is one of the most popular pieces in the book. Watch out for it . . . I'm currently turning it into a TV play.

Personal experience is still the prime mover for any writer. A number of the stories in the collection involve funerals, and that's reasonable because in a former part of my life I was an undertaker. A couple were triggeredby actual burials, others by people I met at funerals.

And then there's the last story in the book, 'Waiting for Waves'. One day I was sitting in the central open-plan restaurant of the Powerscourt Centre in Dublin and I noticed a very elegant woman wandering through the crowd.

I regularly notice elegant women. It is one of the nice things in life.

She was later joined by two men at a shop selling pictures, and they spent some time deciding on a print to buy. Afterwards I approached the woman in charge of the place and asked her what picture they'd selected. She showed me a copy. This was one of the occasions when I knew a story would come from the incident. But it took some time before it happened.

Want to know how it turned out? Read the book.

We writers write, after all, to make a living.

There are a few stories set in New England. That reflects a summer I spent in a small town in Massachusetts back in 1982. One of them, 'With All Our Children', came about from when I was in a rather tough bar on the outskirts of town and met a couple of women who lived together. The location of the first meeting is accurately used, the women are accurately described, and the rest, as they say, is sheer coincidence.

That particular piece was originally 14,000 words long, and ended up as 4,000 words without any change in the story. Which says something about the power of subbed words. But . . . we're talking here about ideas, right?

And so, out of the goldmine, the title story.

I was walking up the town one day and somebody called me over to give an Italian couple directions to a local hill which had Celtic archeological connections. They'd arrived by bus, and it was two miles away, so I drove them up and showed them the place. They, some time later, became the models for the characters in the story. A story, 'Mariseo's House', which is completely fiction.

But that story subsequently also gave birth to the idea for the novel 'The Mariseo Legacy', which was published in early 1996.

Watch this space. And keep an eye out (and an ear, and anything else you have that has some kind of sensory facility) for the story line for your next piece of fiction.

Oh yes, fiction.

Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Yes. Sure. Absolutely.

And I occasionally still wonder about the people alive in my home town whose 'families are connected' with the girl buried on Butcher's Island.

©1994, 1996 William Trapman

(This article was originally published in the Irish writer's magazine Final Draft. William Trapman is a pseudonym of journalist Brian Byrne, who lives in Ireland.)

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