Starting a story is hard. One of the hardest things there is. Harder than doing a headstand on a snooker cue whilst cooking a frittata. Maybe. Stories start in different ways. Some plant themselves like seeds inside your head, spreading through your brain, until you can’t think of anything else. Watch out the roots don’t poke out your nostrils though: people will stare. Other stories you build like towers, brick by painful brick. And if you don’t lay good foundations ﬁrst, then the whole thing will topple and fall. But my ﬁrst story – 'The Snow Merchant' – started in a different way. It arrived on my windowsill.
Back then, I was writing in a cold house of yellow stone in a city of winding streets. I typed away by a tall sash window, with gloves to keep the chillblains off my ﬁngers and plenty of mugs of tea to ﬁght away the shivers. I wrote each night, until the early hours of the morning, trying to start story after story after story. I wrote while my breath misted the air and my radiator clattered and the yellow street lamps outside winked on and off and on again. I wrote, but no matter what I did, none of my stories would start. And then, one moonless night, it snowed.
§ I remember looking up from my computer screen, and saying to myself: ‘oh!’ Piled against my windowsill was a thick white drift of snow. I remember watching it gather there for a long time. When I turned back to my laptop, my ﬁngers were numb and my tea had gone cold but in my head were some words. I typed them out:
On a winter’s night so cold and dark the ﬁres froze in their hearths, snow came to Albion. That was it. I had found the start to my story.
So you see, stories can be found anywhere. Imagine a book that started like this:
I found this story on the windowsill. Or like this:
I found this story wedged down the plughole. Or like this:
I found this story up Grandpa’s left nostril.
They’d all be very different stories, because they’ve come from very different places.
§ So here we go then. Try this: think of a place. It can be a really enormous place, like Jupiter’s Red Spot. Or a really, really tiny place, like your teacher’s brain (HA!) Got your place? Great. Now write this sentence:
I found this story ________. There you are: you’ve started your story! But don’t tell us what it’s about just yet. Spend a little more time telling us where your story is. Describe the world: what it looks like, smells like, feels like... even tastes like. What other things live there, apart from your story? And ﬁnally, what are you doing there?
Show us the moment you/your character ﬁnds the story, and what you/they feel at that moment. You can change these instructions round as much as you like. Rules are made to be played with (not broken). Play around until you ﬁnd something you’re happy with. Here is mine...
You’ll ﬁnd it at the top of the Lone Tree, Bethan told him. There were no big branches now: that’s how Gawain knew he was near. Twigs snagged at his coat, his hands were sticky with moss and sap but he kept on. It felt like hours since he had seen the ground. All around him was a shifting, whispering green world. The Lone Tree murmured in his ears, a soft voice just out of reach. He startled a bird. With a ﬂutter it was gone, leaving a perfect nest of three blue speckled eggs. Hywel from school would have taken the clutch: he had a old shoebox under the ﬂoorboards in his room, where he hoarded bird eggs like a stoat. Gawain let them be. He hadn’t climbed up here for blue eggs. He’d come to ﬁnd the truth. The next branch up, the nest disappeared beneath him and he saw nothing but bark and leaves again. Heard nothing but the tree’s murmurs. How long had he climbed? His hands were raw, his shoulders aching, he could taste his own sweat as he trembled up from branch to branch. He dared not think of falling. If he thought of falling, he would fall. Think only of the next branch, he told himself. Think only of up, up, up. After what seemed like hours, Gawain saw little scraps of blue in the foliage above. Bird’s eggs? He blinked. I’m seeing things. It took him a while to realise the blue above was the sky. Only then did he know he was close. Bethan’s voice came to him. When you ﬁrst see sky, you must go soft. You must be silent if you want to see them. Go soft. That’s how I went. He climbed on, dragging himself quiet as he could up the trunk that grew thinner and thinner and thinner. Go soft. A branch jabbed at his eye, his foot tangled in a patch of ivy, he looked down and without thinking jerked– And his head burst up through a clump of leaves. He shook the bugs from his hair, blinked the dust from his eyes... Then he blinked again, but it was still there. There, at the top of the Lone Tree, just as Bethan had said. ‘It’s true,’ he whispered. ‘The Teg. They’re real.’ Straining his head forward, Gawain peered in through the round little glass windows, each no bigger than his eye. Inside was a kitchen. Six little bowls made from acorn shells sat on a table made from a ﬂat, polished pebble. A tiny ﬁre smouldered in a hearth built of baked mud and twigs, and he could smell something sweet and crisp and good... An slice of apple lay chopped, uneaten, on the pebble table by a long, curved bird’s claw.
Heart pounding and mind whirling, Gawain looked from window to window: six beds in the bedroom, six chairs in the living room, six miniscule pegs by the front door, on which hung six coats. Other than that, the house was empty. The Tylwyth Teg were gone. He hadn’t gone soft enough.
Happy writing. And if you ﬁnd anything interesting in your window, do let me know! www.samgayton.com