Yesterday I sent off a finished story - hooray! Break out the Prosecco! This morning I found myself thinking back to how the story started. And last night, after a chance remark by another writing friend (hello, Lucy), I thought of how another story had started.
The story delivered yesterday was triggered by a scene glimpsed from a train window two or three years ago. It was raining, the train was crawling across the Fens on the bleak Peterborough-to-Cambridge run - which I love, because of its bleakness. There was a car parked in a field beside a dyke, and a man getting out, opening the boot. And then the train had passed him. I wondered what he was doing, and thought 'What if he were dumping a body? We all saw but no-one really saw. Would he get away with it?' Eighteen months later, that scene became the starting point for the story, Off the rails, in which a boy on the train home from school sees two men apparently dump a body in a dyke. That first scene became a later scene, and then moved back to the beginning again. The one man I saw became two men. The possible murder became something else. But the story's origins are firmly in that fleeting view of a moment in someone else's life. (And maybe he did dump a body...)
The story Lucy reminded me of is a short ghost story just published [shameless plug: it's in Ghost Stories published by Evans, with stories by three splendid and talented other writers - Gillian Philip, Dennis Hamley and Alex Stewart]. The Hanging Tree began on a walk to Waitrose in November. A streetlight shining through the bare trees cast shadows like crooked, arthritic fingers. By the time I'd got to Waitrose, they were the fingers of a ghostly highwayman, hiding in an old yew tree (a yew tree from my childhood, in which a real highwayman was rumoured to lurk awaiting prey hundreds of years before). In Waitrose, I bought a pen and nicked some loo roll and wrote down the bones of the story. And then did the shopping.
An adult novelist friend told me how her novel grew out of a conversation with a German astronomer with whom she shared a late-night taxi to Cambridge station. Something he said had grown, by the end of the short trip, into the germ of a long, complex novel in which Isaac Newton is implicated in modern-day murders (Rebcca Stott's Ghostwalk).
These stories that seem to come from nowhere, sparked into life by a chance remark, something glimpsed, heard or misheard, then go out into the world ripped from their origins. If only all stories came with a short note about their conception - the story of the story - it would give a fascinating insight (at least to other writers). How did Melville come up with Moby Dick, I wonder? Did he have a demanding pet fish? Maybe it's best not to know about some of them. What did Mary Shelley think of her husband....?