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  • Writer's pictureAlan Dale

Never Be Afraid To Bin Your First Idea – It Probably Is Hackneyed.

How cross-fertilisation of ideas (sometimes) works for me

Our Covid-determined zoom version of a writers’ circle meeting drew to a close.

“Right, would anyone care to set a homework theme?” enquired the Chairman.

“Can we have something about remembrance? asked one of our established contributors, from her screen image.

Remembrance – what aspect was I to invoke, what sequence of images should I seek to conjure? Various possibilities scrolled across my mind’s eye. Khaki clad, medal-clinking, probably rain-drenched occasions, setting the stage for a long-lost relative’s return? Revelations springing from the reminiscences of the elderly or life-threatened suggested another well-worn trove of tropes. Well-worn – that was the trouble. They all seemed be utterly predictable – a sure sign that they were.

Read, I thought to myself, the following evening, when inspiration still seemed a distant, abstract possibility – reading could stimulate ideas. I settled down with a promising book of short stories.

Adjusting the lamp and leaning back in my chair, I had a strange sensation of watching myself, as if viewing a film. This gave way to an image of various other members of our group, similarly settling down to read. I suspect that the very recent imposition of Tier 2 Covid restrictions on our area may have caused this sense of a shared path. It recalled a (3D?) computer simulation, in which one watched myriad tiny figures booking into a hotel before entering their rooms.

Phrases such as “as he read, others were pouring themselves drinks, gazing from lounge windows, adjusting central heating...” began circulating, like an orchestra tuning up.

Suddenly an entire plot idea presented itself. Two of these characters could be war veterans with a shared guilty secret. A third, (deep unmitigated joy – I still hadn’t exceeded the commonly acknowledged maximum number of short story characters), could be a third ex-comrade. Only he’d be a rather different type of associate – he saw the other two commit their crime.

Great – I now had a time-honoured conventional setting with a really good time bomb ticking away under it. The next question, leaving aside the nature of the villains’ offence, was what to use as the detonator. I already had a somewhat cynical or twisted possible interpretation of the remembrance theme, as all three were locked into remembering the original terrible events.

I wanted something more directly related to Remembrance Day parades, as I felt that this would increase the story’s impact.

Ironically, or fortuitously, for me, another Covid related theme, that of Alzheimer’s and the pandemic’s effect on sufferers, provided another usable suggestion. What if some current medical research had shown that spectacular events, such as military parades, could sometimes, under certain conditions, unlock hitherto evasive memories?

This seemed to be the missing piece of the plot jigsaw. One villain reads the article in the paper, or online (more likely via the former medium, given their age, but not necessarily). They realise that their ex-comrade will be watching them, when they are on parade, on Remembrance Sunday, a few days hence.

I now realised that there were various routes to the end of a plot, from this point. I could have a panic stricken telephone call, from one villain to the other, with plans hurriedly conceived to prevent Corporal whoever from appearing on parade. I could also have one villain read the article, but with no time to warn his fellow perpetrator. I could equally have the Matron of the Corporal’s care home glance at the article’s headline, prior to the parade occurring with all three characters (and, to a lesser extent, the reader) unaware of what might follow.

What a rich, totally unforeseen selection! And it all came about by forcing myself to reject my obviously unoriginal first ideas.

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