Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Smells out of Memory, Sounds out of Time - by Ruth Hatfield

I was asked to think again recently about the topic of inspiration, or ‘where do you get your ideas from?’. It’s a faintly terrifying question for me, and I suspect for a lot of other writers, mainly because it’s so hard to summarise. A lot of us can’t be very specific about where, exactly, we get our ideas from, possibly because a) we don’t always notice and b) it’s not really that important to us – it’s what we do with them that counts. 

When I’m asked the question about ideas, I always get the feeling that I’m being asked for the secret of the magic trick, which none of my answers can really adequately explain – there’s no real equivalent to mirrors and fake legs in a writer’s world. As far as magic tricks go, the truth is that neither the trick nor the magic really tend to come from the original ideas themselves. The brilliance of books lies mostly, in my opinion, in their execution – in the skill and craft of the crafter, not in their stunning originality. But I digress.

Where do I get my ideas from? The best way to answer is with specific examples. This week I’ve been thinking about two particular ideas:

Why does the little bathroom at the back of my kitchen smell exactly like my grandparents’ garage? To the extent that every time I go in there it is as if I have plummeted down the black hole back into childhood, at the end of those long journeys up north, when we would get out of the car late at night, smell the clear, cool Northumberland air and walk through that dark garage into their well-lit kitchen. This is a memory of an event that happened many times, but hasn’t happened for many years, and yet that single smell conjures up the door to a brightly-lit, vanished world that I can just step into, any time I like.

And also: I live in a normal city street – the houses at my end are semi-detached 1930s council houses. I always sense that quite a few groups of households know each other, but I’m sure most of us wouldn’t be able to name more than 5 of our neighbours. Last Friday as I was at the park with my daughter, I heard the sound of horses’ hoofbeats. I can’t tell you how strange it was: here, on my narrow, car-lined city street in 2017, it is an impossible sound. It just doesn’t happen.

I grabbed my daughter and raced out of the park to look. A white carriage pulled by two grey horses complete with nodding white ostrich plumes plodded up the street. The driver, top-hatted, in black tailcoat, pulled up outside a house. There was some faffing around. Within five minutes people were pouring out of their houses, running up the street to knock on neighbours’ doors, gathering in crowds to take selfies and chat to the driver and groom, or just standing back admiringly. And talking to each other.

Generally, here, the only people you see spending any length of time on the street are either having late-night domestics or parking wars, and I suddenly saw it as it might have been, fifty years ago, when there weren’t such good home entertainments and more people must have spent more time hanging around outside their houses, talking to each other. And all it took was the impossible sound of horses’ hooves on a sunny evening to make something now almost completely lost flare up again, just for a moment.


Two ideas. They feel like big ones to me. The question is – what do I do with them?

Time for the magic tricks…


Sue Purkiss said...

Write a story about each of them on a postcard, and park it till you're ready to write about it!

Penny Dolan said...

Those hoofbeats - how they might once have been and how they were! And a time when people interested enough to hang about outside? Wonderful!

These are the sorts of moments that give you - even if briefly - what I'd call the "writing shivers". Moments to make you reach for an empty postcard, for sure.

Lynne Benton said...

Lovely post, Ruth - and actually both ideas could easily find their way into the same book. Now all you need is the time to write it...

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Helen Larder said...

A great insight into how ideas can develop! Thanks, Ruth xxxx