15 February 2006
More about the small stuff, which is all I have to work with just at the moment. I am playing with hard- and software this week; just now I have two monitors, two keyboards and two mice on my desk, two boxes on the floor and four different operating systems between them. One of the keyboards (this one, as it happens) is kind of weird; I've been using ergonomic ones for years, but this one slopes in an entirely unexpected direction, as well as being divided and dished and all the rest of it. I rather like it, actually; whether it'll serve my RSI well or ill, we wait to learn.
And can only learn by doing, but this kind of experimentation is not suited to serious writing, so I'm knocking off a few easy pieces before I get back to the novel. Including:
A couple of days ago, I had an e-mail asking if I'd like to submit a microstory for the EasterCon programme book. 500 words, and a mention of Glasgow would be nice. I thought it would be fun, I like that kind of challenge; and a useful exercise too, so of course I said yes please. And I wrote it yesterday.
So how do you do that, how do you pluck an idea and ripen it and make a story of it, all in twenty-four hours? Where, indeed, do you get your ideas from? These are the questions that occur; and I can't answer for anyone else, but to some extent I can answer for myself. In this instance, the process went like this:
A couple of weeks ago - very possibly in an E F Benson novel, which I'm studying with an adult education group, under m'friend Gail's tutelage - I came across the phrase 'terrible as an army with banners', which rang vaguely biblical bells but resonated much more deeply. So I looked it up (Song of Solomon, repeated several times throughout), but being me, wondered what changed if you played with the grammar. As it stands, it's just adjectival; add a verb, "Terrible as an army with banners undoubtedly is, ..." and suddenly you're in wholly new territory and you've got a really interesting opening phrase for a story.
Obviously, its source being biblical, the original cultural context is middle eastern; but to me, an army with banners sings of the far east. And of course I'm working on this sequence of oriental fantasies, I've already published one that speaks inter alia of bannermen, my mind turns automatically in that direction...
But that's only a setting and an opening line. Still need a theme, characters, plot, even in a mini-story. To some extent these all go hand in hand, or at least follow each other closely, and with a setting and an opening line you're halfway there already; just finish that line the way it begs to be finished, like a chord-sequence begs to be resolved, "Terrible as an army with banners undoubtedly is, a single man can be worse," and there's your first character, and the baggage he brings with him pretty much sets the theme, and that pretty much defines the plot: a territory is under threat, and its defence against this terrible man will be our story.
But this is the far east, where threat and counterthreat are played out in civil insincerity, over cups of tea; and so happens that I know about tea, and especially white tea. White tea means two different things, according to class and income: first, it's a rare and expensive way to pick and process the leaves to produce a sweet and delicate brew, and I drink it constantly; second, it's a name the peasants have traditionally used for simple hot water, which they drink in lieu of tea they can't afford.
Which all leads ineluctably to thoughts of confidence tricks, the emperor's new clothes, that sort of thing; and then you stir in a dragon, and that familiar oriental ruthlessness, and have the original phrase sing throughout the piece, and there you are: one story, delivered as per. Well, it's not quite within the 500-word limit, but I can shave it back if I'm asked to.
© Chaz Brenchley 2006
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.