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Inspiration: How anything can become a story

One of the first things any writer is told is, 'write what you know', but if this was true then classics like 'The Wind in the Willows', 'Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy' and Terry Pratchett's 'Discworld' series would never have been written, nor would anything else that is not based on humans in the real world. However, all of these books have elements that have been inspired by real world people or events. My favourite of all Terry Pratchett's books is 'Night Watch' which was partially inspired by the real life Battle of Cable Street: names and events were all changed to fit into the history of Ankh-Morpork and its citizens, but the connections are clear. Likewise, 'The Murder at Road Hill House' by Kate Summerscale was inspired by the real life murder of Francis 'Saville' Kent and the subsequent events.

Writers often talk about finding inspiration in a particular place - the idea for one of my current WIP came to me on a visit to the Beth Chatto Gardens in Elmstead Market and the story grew from there. Writers such as Susan Cooper and Kate Mosse have drawn inspiration from myths and legends for Cooper's 'Dark is Rising' series and Mosse's book 'The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales'.

For me, inspiration can come at the strangest times and in the strangest places. Driving home one evening along a fairly lonely country road, I found myself wondering, 'what if a naked man suddenly ran out in front of the car and I had to slam the brakes on?' I started thinking about why he might have been there and under what circumstances he might have found himself, on a cold winter's evening, minus his clothes. The idea was noted down when I got home and still sits unused in a notebook full of similarly odd ideas for stories. One day, some will get used and be crossed out, while others will remain unsullied on the page and will never fulfil their purpose.

Newspaper articles, unidentified graves, chance remarks made or overheard: all have been used to inspire wonderful works of fiction and authors even find it in their own books. When I wrote 'The Forest Children' its began because my eldest son wanted me to write a book about him having an adventure with Robin Hood. It was only ever meant to be one book written primarily to entertain him - it did and it brought us closer together as we worked on it together. I'd read him each chapter as I wrote it and he would suggest things that he wanted included in the narrative. However, at the end of it, as I was editing the last chapter, I read one sentence I'd written about the swords of Wayland and thought to myself, 'there could be a sequel in that'. A few weeks later, I started work on 'The Stranger At The Door' with a total of seven books now vaguely planned.

This week as part of my MA I've been looking at what constitutes 'style' and considering what my own style of writing is. One of the exercises we had to do was to take what we had learnt and use it to write a short piece, demonstrating what was positive about our writing. All the things I'm currently working on are longer stories, so I needed to write something new that would stand alone. The previous evening I'd been on Facebook and had read a post from a man who said he'd been running along a disused railway track and met a man carrying a pick, but when he'd returned along the path a very short time later, the man with the pick had vanished. It had freaked him out and I'd gone to bed mulling over the story possibilities within that event.

This was the end result.

Richard jogged steadily down the track, his breath hanging in clouds that puffed forth with every alternate strike of his feet. The old railway line, overgrown in many places and consequently less popular with other runners, was the perfect place for him to run out his frustration. Teenage children and a peri-menopausal wife meant strained silences punctuated by violent quarrels, sudden squalls that sprang up from a calm sea then dissipated into a frenzy of sobbing. This was his safe harbour, his place of calm he shared with no-one.

The mist was coming down as he approached the disused station at the end of the line; it was a thin wet haze, clear enough to see through, but which brought with it the kind of insidious creeping cold that chilled you from the inside out, rising through the layers of flesh and clothing to rejoin the air without.

A man appeared as if from nowhere, a pickaxe clutched tightly in his hand, but Richard was past him before he could do more than mutter a quick ‘hello’ between exhalations.

‘Odd,’ he thought. The track was usually deserted, especially at twilight when the light was dropping to a softer, subtle shade of purple, clothing the unlit track in a gauzy veil.

He jogged on as far as the beginning of the platform, then looped a 360 to head home. The regular slap of his trainers on the wet path echoed around him and the occasional twitter of a nesting bird hung in the air, but of the man he had passed, there was no sign. The abandoned railway line was just that; there were no trails leading off it and no broken bushes to indicate anyone had forced their way through. Richard was completely alone.

The mist was becoming thicker now, obscuring all but the closest objects and these loomed out at him, the fading light throwing shadows in his path as the encroaching darkness folded itself around him. The soft twittering of the nesting birds had given way to the screeching of an owl and the feathery rush of its wings as it swooped low over his head, arrow straight and focused on the prey below it. Still no sign of the man and he was halfway to the main road now. Surely he should have overtaken him by now?

A branch cracked somewhere underfoot and he broke into a sprint, heart and feet pounding in unison.

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