Recently I found myself thinking about my earliest memory. It is a snapshot from a time before I had much in the way of language and it has worked itself from the moorings of anything else I was experiencing at that time of my life and floats freely now in the stream of my imagination. As a writer, it is a scene I find interesting precisely because of its lack of moorings, because it throws up questions and starts me thinking of the possibilities of its context.
So much of the memory is clear and sharp. I can see, hear, feel and taste things as though I were experiencing them this instant. The first thing I see is bars – cot bars. This immediately throws up the first question: how old am I? I must be less than two, as I know that I had to vacate the cot for my younger sister who came along about two years after me. But I am sitting up, so I am not a small baby. As I let the scene run in my mind’s eye I realize I can hear crying, and that it is me making the noise. So, I have been left in my cot and I am crying. But why? I am still very small, arguably too small to be left crying like this. I then hear that the crying is not particularly convincing. It has in fact reached a point where I am simply moaning the word “Mummy” over and over again at a subdued pitch. So possibly I have given up hope on anyone coming to see what I am crying about. I then realize I have already cried too long and too much by this point. I have come to the memory at the point where I have almost cried myself out; my eyes are swimming with tears, and my nose and mouth are full of tear-snot, that liquid which is thicker than tears and which comes at the end of a particularly long bout of weeping. I have managed to produce so much of it by now that I am blowing bubbles with it every time I say the word “Mummy”. My crying is slowly giving way to the creation of these bubbles as I watch, intrigued at how big I can make them.
And then the memory ends, switches itself off as though I were watching a short video clip which is now finished. Did my mother come and get me? Had she left me for a long time because she had fallen asleep, exhausted by looking after a toddler while she was pregnant with my sister? Or perhaps someone else was looking after me that day? If so, did they feel bad when they finally came to me and saw how much and how long I had cried? Or was I in reality only crying for a matter of minutes anyway, my sense of abandonment amplified by my lack of an understanding of the passage of time?
As I thought about this memory, I realized that my writing often starts like this, with a scene or a snapshot of a character, and then the whys and wherefores, the what ifs and how comes are what set the cogs whirring and thus the story into motion. Without an initial image or soundbite, I do not have a hook on which to hang my story.
My book Monkey Business started with a voice in my ear, that of the hippy uncle character, Zed. I heard him muttering one day, talking to his nephew, Felix, and explaining how Nature has its own rhythm without recourse to watches or clocks. Suddenly a scene was there, fully formed, and I could work outwards from that to create the rest of the book – a story essentially about a little boy who worships his uncle and shares his love of animals and how this, coupled with a large dollop of misunderstanding, gets the characters into some tricky situations. I had wanted to write about a boy like Felix for a while, but had not known how to start the story until Zed turned up.
My most recent book, I’m A Chicken Get Me Out of Here! had a similar beginning. After a night of anxiety when one of our chickens did not come home to roost (but did thankfully appear the next day unscathed) I began to wonder how she had survived. I was turning this over in my mind when my son's friend asked if he could bring his guinea pig round to our house to meet our chicken. This meeting sparked off a scene in my imagination where the fictional chicken arrives at her new home to find she is expected to share a hutch with an OCD guinea pig called Brian. Once I had scribbled down my imagined scenario, the rest of the story found its way, spreading its tentacles outwards from that snapshot.
Even though snapshots such as these kickstart a story, they rarely find their way on to page one of the finished story; more often than not they will worm their way into the middle of the book, and beginnings are often written once I have got to the end.
So I thought I would throw this out into the ABBA ether – how many of you start with a scene or an image? And how many prefer to work in a more linear way? Answers on the back of a snapshot, please.