People tell me they often struggle to ‘find the story’; to ‘have an idea’. Some novels are high concept and require an idea that makes you say, wish I’d thought of that. I’d say While No One Was Watching has that kind of big story premise (and please, I don’t mean that to sound egotistical) I just mean it’s using a HUGE historical moment and tapping into something universal. Not a lot more universal than a mother losing a child in a crowd — only this one still missing 50 years on, is there? But story doesn’t have to be that huge.
My other two American novels, perhaps I Am Wolf less so, also rely on a big story. Isle of Pelicans is very plot-driven; high-profile singer, son kidnapped, enter Frank the ‘reluctant’ clairvoyant, ex-con, and the biggest case of crossed wires you can find, using messages from beyond … and you have a big thriller on your hands.
But even then for me what I like to think burns at the heart of these and all my stories are the characters. People you love and buy into no matter their idiosyncrasies; or maybe because of them. In what I write and the books I read I seek strong voices and real characters I am rooting for from page one.
So do all stories need to have that GREAT story?
They don’t all need to be high concept plot-driven, but they need a strong story and characters that bring those stories to life. And those stories are all around us, all the time. Just look.
The new novel is not plot-driven, although it needs something or there is no story. But it does have ‘real people’ and what I hope is a strong enough premise to draw the reader into the world of an east London allotment. The more I know my characters the more I love them; and I hope you will too.
But this idea of not finding a story isn’t true because for me story is really about capturing life; in a new and interesting way perhaps, but at the same time in a way we can all relate to. This makes it instantly universal and appealing.
So where do we find that story? Look around you. Look now. Look today.
Yesterday I rang 999 for the first time. (Isn’t that line alone a writing prompt?) — it’s true. Not for me but for a very poorly neighbour with a serious chronic condition, now in hospital.
I stood in their hallway with their phone pressed to my face while I watched life — love unfold in the next room. I watched a wife of more than 50 years hold her husband and tell him keep talking to me, I know you’re in there, don’t leave me. I saw her hold his face and say it over and over.
This time it’s not fiction I write. I saw love in a form I recognised, desperate don’t leave me love. It was a moment not meant for me, but I was there. I saw my parents’ reaction (these are really their very close friends), pacing, pale, impatient faces when five minutes feels like twenty, being asked if I know how to do CPR if I need to: don’t worry the ambulance is on blues and twos: flashing lights and a siren. Stay on the line.
That’s life; the hard edge of a life lived and a drama unfolding in the quiet of a suburban street; curtains flicking as people look out of window and see an ambulance. They think about their own mortality; how everyone’s stories impact on everyone else’s and one day; one day that drama will be them.
When the paramedics came I stepped out of the moment I felt I was an intruder in and I went home where I sat and thought about how what I’d seen would stay with me.
The story has a shape; there is an ending — he is safe in hospital, this drama hopefully averted — for now.
The stories are all around you — look for them. It’s in reaction and action you see life, and death. The stories play out around you every day. That is where you will find your story.
Do we writers see the world differently?
No. Yes. Maybe.
Or maybe we take the time to look and reflect and recall. We store the moments and we use them. We write them down. Perhaps now, perhaps later.
Have a great weekend everyone and make sure they know how much you love them.