The worlds we create belong to some reality. Those realities must have some form of physics that governs the actions within. These physics must be the type that can create and sustain life or at least things that are capable of having and conveying experiences within that reality. No characters, no story. These factors combined with our limited imaginations as 3D, corporeal, mortal beings means that the realities we create are almost always analogous to our own.
So what does this mean for our writing? It means the world, our real world, is a treasure trove of inspiration. If our writing is doomed to be analogous, why not hunt for some bitchin’ analogs!
I’m a lucky man and I get to travel a lot thanks to my rad wife’s rad job. Wherever we go, I always like to keep an eye out for intriguing settings or details from scenes that could one day make it into my stories. This, for example, is an actual Victorian surgical theater smack dab in the middle of London. As a writer of mostly dark themes, I had to check this place out. Who knows when one of these rooms will creep into a story. So, I hopped on the tube and bought my ticket and hauled myself up the narrow stairwell, through the gift shop, and up to the vantage point where I took the photo. That photo, however is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the way I go about scene collecting.
I say scene collecting because that’s what I’m doing. I’m soaking in and recording, via image, notes, or memory, all of the unique, fascinating, and most importantly, striking aspects of the space. I’m gathering “idea-berries” such as the worn wood or stained floorboards and throwing them in my “for later use’ basket.
The first thing that struck me in the surgical theater was how close and yet detached I felt from the operating table. Was it my elevated position? The impossibly small operating area? The railing holding me in place, apart from where the action was? Questions like these always start a flood of others. I think about what I’m sensing. What’s that I’m smelling? What would it feel like to watch unanesthetized surgery. How would that sound in that vaulted room? Did they feel claustrophobic wedged in next to each other along the iron and wood rails? I, in one form or another keep a record of the questions. Answers are great if I can figure them out but the questions and the experiences I’m having are all I really need in the moment. All I need is something to make the details stick out in my head or in my notes. Answers can come later.
In the surgical theater, I spent all my time putting myself into historical shoes but what about my own? What about the genuine experiences I’ve had in a specific place? They can be just as unique and informative.
The picture above came from a recent trip to Colorado to visit friends. We spent a night atop the dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park. So much of that experience felt foreign and otherworldly and my mind was clamoring to soak it all in. The experience started with the abject exhaustion of trying to scale dune after dune on our way to our camp. If I was going to suffer I might as well get something out of the experience, so I thought about how my legs burned. I tried to focus on the frustration I felt as my feet sank and slid in the sand. My lungs filled but wanted more and more air. They were insatiable and now the lungs of a future character may be too. Then there was the realization that no, we would not be escaping the mosquitoes that had haunted us all day, even though there wasn’t any water near by. Waking up to see the netting of your tent covered in the little devils, drunk on the CO2 from your breath… you know I’ll be pulling out that horror for future work.
I’ve talked a lot about collecting interesting, usable scene elements from far flung locations but there’s no need to reserve that kind of work for trips alone. The world you inhabit at any given moment is a fractal cornucopia of detail. You just have to stop long enough to become interested.
The above picture was from a simple winter walk in the forest behind my apartment. A flash of orange struck me and I moved in closer to get a better view. We often take for granted that which happens beneath the surfaces that obscure our view. Here, I had a window into another creature’s world. Its body creating a beautiful design that glowed on a bleak day. A design that was not so lovely for the organism on which it was carved. Then there’s the mystery of what happened to the artist. Did it die? Is this its last testament? Did it metamorphose into some new creature? Is it still there, lurking in the cold, waiting for the sun to give it enough energy to continue its work? Will its art give me enough inspiration for a place in my work? Until I know the answer, I’ll tuck this away with the other bits and pieces I collect, ready and waiting for the right scene.