All fiction, whether flash, short story or full-length novel, is the result of something triggering at least one of the five senses, but I will just deal with the two most relevant to my process: visual and aural.
The brain is ever alert, even when we believe ourselves oblivious to what is happening all around us. Whether it’s activity on the pedestrian crossing during an enforced stop at traffic lights, a fleeting glimpse from a speeding train, an absent-minded gaze through one’s front window, a phrase from a book, newspaper or magazine, or even a scene from a movie or TV programme, the brain processes everything. Sometimes we will mention something we’ve witnessed or read to somebody but, if we were to relay everything that passes before our eyes in a normal day, we would have great difficulty in finding the time to eat and sleep – not to mention work. Our subconscious stores these images, files them away in the deep, dusty recesses of our minds, where most will remain for the duration of our lives.
Our ears are just as greedy as our eyes, and even more efficient. Like eyes, ears can focus, they can zoom in on one particular sound – not necessarily the nearest or loudest, and, while our eyes can only see in the direction in which they are trained, our ears can simultaneously gather information from every direction. We all overhear snippets of conversations: on the street, in a bar, at a TAXI rank, bus stop or train station, a hospital waiting room, the workplace, any place where two or more are gathered… But it’s even better now: thanks to the ubiquity of the mobile phone, we are constantly bombarded with the trifles and tragedies of other people’s lives.
And what of the other sides of those phone conversations? Why is she running after him in the street? Why does he kick out at the discarded polystyrene cup on the Boardwalk; does he punch the air after doing so, or does he lash out at it again before crunching it beneath his heel? We know why the punter shreds his betting slip outside the bookie’s door, or do we? The street is wet: but has it rained, or has it been manually cleansed? This is where the writer in us comes in – or breaks out. We can only guess as to what has happened before each brief glimpse of somebody else’s triumphs or trials, but what will happen next is up to us; we get to play God!
I’m rarely very far from a notebook. I have several – cheap, floppy, wire-bound things which will hold a pen – in the pockets of my favourite jackets, in my overnight bag, in my week-away bag, on my coffee table, by my bedside, in the car, even in my guitar case. I may add to my list of unused titles, I may just take a few basic notes, or even write a haiku to preserve a particularly striking moment: one can pack a lot of atmosphere into seventeen syllables.
Most of my stories are conceived in these notebooks. The first entry might be a phrase, a name, a characteristic… a keyhole through which to peek. It may take days, weeks or even months before a word is committed to a PC file – I rarely take the big step until I have a fair grasp of where the idea is heading. Very rarely will I complete a draft in one sitting, I generally pause somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words, to become more familiar with my characters, to listen to their voices, hear their opinions; try to understand where they’re coming from – to decide where they’re going. This is when the real work begins, but by giving my subjects sufficient room to evolve inside my head they will tell me when and how to approach all subsequent drafts. Yes, my characters are my workshop.
d, r, m, f, s, l, t… Yes, there are only seven notes; yet, no piece of music – from the great classics to the weirdest of cult forms – contains anything other than those seven notes. As a songwriter, I fully appreciate how fortunate poets and fiction writers are compared to composers, not only do we have twenty-six letters to work with, but evolution has done us the favour of moulding infinite combinations of those letters together – all we have to do is place the resulting words in the order of our choice.
I’ve read somewhere that each fictional character should be a compilation of three people known to the writer. While I’ve never consciously pursued this route, I was intrigued when some friends who’d read the manuscript prior to publication, asked me if certain characters were based on mutual acquaintances. I was stunned: I’d never considered any of those whom my readers believed they had identified. But their nominations have given me food for thought.
Below are examples of how the ideas and the process outlined above led to the first three stories of my new collection.
I can’t recall what I was reading when I first encountered the term. Google informed me that a neap tide is a quarter moon tide, when the difference between the high and low tides is least. It’s the opposite of a spring tide – a full or new moon tide – when the high and low levels vary the most. So, does it follow that a neap tide is safer than a spring tide? The question gave me the essence of my 2012 summer story – I’ve written a summer story every year since 2007, when arthritic hips temporarily frustrated my passion for nature walks and general outdoor wanderings
This was a difficult story to write and is probably equally painful to read, but it had to be written. There have been many drafts since the seed was first planted about ten years ago, when I was made aware of the practice of recruiting young boys from sympathetic families as future snipers. The induction involved ‘blooding’ the youngsters by having them shoot foxes, rabbits and other live targets. While the story is brutal, this brutality is necessary to emphasise the depths to which an individual will descend for a cause, and the enormity of what has ultimately been achieved.
‘Sure we all can’t be perfect, God help us,’ was the phrase that triggered this story, even though it was spoken in a totally different context to that in which I’ve used it here. A lot has been written about clerical child abuse – some of it by actual survivors. But what do we know of those who turned a blind eye – or worse? What do we know of the victims’ who haven’t spoken, of those who never will?
Many of the stories in this collection deal with communication – or the lack of it – within relationships on a variety of levels. We have the eyes, we have the ears, we have the words, all we need to do is use them.
(c) Neil Brosnan