Last weekend I went to something called a Writer’s Gym, which is pretty much what it says on the tin: a work-out for writers. Not the physical kind, thankfully. Physical exercise and me, well, we’re acquainted but our relationship is strained at best. No, this was a mental workout. The gym leader – personal trainer? – set a series of exercises, each with an individual prompt, and a time limit within which to write a scene that fit those requirements.
I’ve done this kind of thing before and I love it because it forces me to think. It frames scenes in a way that I would never come up with on my own, and at the end of the exercise I frequently have a pretty pivotal result on my hands. The key to each one, every time, has been an entirely mundane object – an umbrella, a chewed pencil, or in this case a laundry line.
The exercise was to use whatever object you drew from a deck of cards and create a bad memory for your protagonist around it. When I drew ‘laundry line’, I had a flash-back to my own memory of the laundry line in my childhood house. It was a wobbly old rotary thing in the corner of the patio and I loved the way it span like a carousel. I’d help my mum hang the washing out just because I liked making it go round. This was a good memory for me, albeit an unimportant one. How to make it bad?
I already knew that I wanted my protagonist to have a slightly strained relationship with her mother – I just hadn’t been sure how to establish it. The image of her mother hanging out the laundry, and the complete incongruity of the protagonist doing the same, threw it into relief. Her mother is happy in her role of wife and homemaker, and can’t understand why her daughter didn’t want the same thing. The protagonist is a career detective, and single. The tension comes from the dichotomy of expectations between older and younger generation, and the lack of understanding for each other’s perspective. Suddenly that dissonance between generations, and the pressure it can create, unlocked a whole new side to the protagonist. I had one of the core drivers for her character arc – balancing the weight of expectation from both herself and her mother, and coming to peace with them – from the simple image of a laundry line.
My point, really, is this: the simplest things can make the most powerful points. When writing SF&F it’s very easy to fall back on magic swords and oracular crystals and so on, and they absolutely have their place. But the mundane amongst the magical has its own power – a more relatable power in many ways and therefore harder-hitting. The first Writer’s Gym I did, the image of a wooden-handled umbrella resulted in a scene revealing an old crime that was so horrific it actually made me slightly nauseous just writing it, and the hero’s violent reaction to it therefore entirely believable.
It’s very easy to overlook everyday objects as sources of inspiration, and surprisingly difficult to pick them for yourself. Ask someone – a friend, colleague, family member – to randomly select something that they use every day, or have lying around the house. See where it takes you.