Where do stories ‘come from’?
It’s a question I often get asked when visiting schools. I usually say something like – they come from all around you, from the lives of your friends and family and people you read about, and from things you hear about at home and in the news, locally and in the wider world, and from things you witness.
And above all from things that happen to you.
The thing to do is be aware of them, and receive them, and store them up. They might – or might not – become part of a story, or the essence of a story.
I’d been walking and photographing – windblown patterns in the sand, patterns made by drying seaweed, textures of rocks – on a favourite beach, which was overlooked by some fairly exclusive homes. I’d walked to the end of the beach and was standing beside the parking area, looking back at the rising tide.
A car with tinted windows drove in. One of the windows slid down a crack. I thought I glimpsed two men inside. Suits and sunglasses. An air of menace. Intended or imagined? One of them watching me.
At the same time a small plane appeared over the trees and waggled its wings as it flew low over where I was standing. Was it some kind of sign? A warning? To me or to the men in the car? The window slid closed and the car cruised silently out of the parking area and disappeared up the beach road.
Leaving me thinking – there’s a story here!
After many false starts and rewrites, only the car with the tinted windows and the men inside, who became security guards, were left from that incident. The scene – the ‘real’ scene – formed the basis of the opening of Footprints (Jesperson/Breakwater 2008), a tight thriller about the seeds of terrorism with the best last line I think I’ve ever come up with. Here’s the opening:
When the long black car with the tinted windows stops at the end of the Old Beach Road, Drumgold ignores it, Isora gives it the finger, and Harper pretends he hasn’t seen it. Already he has that cold, sweaty feeling, knowing something bad is going to happen. His friends walk on. He follows, sneaking a glance back at the car. The window slides down a crack. He knows it will be one of Anderson’s men watching them as he radios to the cottage: Kids on the beach.