Heroes by Chris Green
The pandemic has been a devastating time for everyone. You don’t have to look too hard to find heartbreaking real-life stories. They are everywhere. And the horror of losing loved ones continues with no end in sight. In addition to the carnage, millions more have lost their livelihoods, and the lockdown has been difficult for families the length and breadth of the country. Apart from the obvious effects, the mental health consequences of the isolation are incalculable. Everyone is becoming a little stir crazy.
It would be wrong to look for too much sympathy in terrible times like these, but spare a thought for us writers of imaginative fiction. Admittedly, we should be more at home than most with the solitude. We need quiet time to craft our stories, but more importantly than this, we need inspiration. We have to come up with ideas in the first place, and these usually come from being out there amongst people. All fiction is based to some extent on real-life experiences. The germ of the idea might come from a snippet of conversation we accidentally overhear, an unusual event, the juxtaposition of two contradictory views, glimpses of peculiar behaviour or an idiosyncratic character. Locked down as we have been, we have largely been deprived of these prompts. There has been nothing to spark our imagination. You will probably have noticed that there have been few novels or short stories on the shelves worth reading this year. This is not a coincidence.
With the escalating numbers of fatalities, you might argue that there is plenty of human drama we could draw upon. This is as maybe, but only for writers that like to rub your nose in the ordure. This is not the time to get stuck into a Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy novel. In troubled times like this, I’m pretty sure my readers would not appreciate a dystopian narrative. I have avoided any reference to the virus in all of my work since the pandemic began. There is more than enough of this on the daily news bulletins. People need no more reminders. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through. Something lighter and more entertaining is called for.
The quiet rural area Lucy and I live in offers little obvious raw material for a punchy plotline. Chekhovian realism is important, of course, but no-one wants to read about dull characters whose actions are predictable. It may have worked for Hardy, but rural pursuits do not have a place in speculative fiction. My readers don’t want to read about farmers ploughing fields, horses being mucked out, or cows clumping in pastures. And counting sheep sends you to sleep. The fellow with the Dodge pickup, who produces the 13% green rough cider in his compound of makeshift outhouses, might have a story or two to tell. Similarly, the clientele of The Horse and Horse which may or may not be a focal point for county-lines trafficking might have interesting experiences to relate.
But given the reports of how easily the virus spreads, why would I take the risk? Lucy and I don’t even go out. We get everything delivered. We are on the vulnerable list and are shielding. I’m used to being able to travel around freely to find my source material, at least for the initial inspiration. Most writers of fiction will tell you that exploration is the principal driver of narrative development. But there are other sources. I suppose I could stare at the night sky in search of inspiration, or scan the heavens with the telescope I bought when many years ago when I thought there might be starmen waiting in the sky. I could perhaps scour the archives for an interesting memory to get me started, although I may find I have already dug deep into my stock. Dreams are another wellspring of ideas for a writer. I have called on my own nocturnal adventures once or twice, that’s for sure. But even in the world of speculative fiction, dreamscapes need to be used sparingly, a backup rather than a primary resource.
Names are sometimes a good place to start. A well-chosen character name can get the ball rolling. My Roy Saxx and Guy Bloke stories started in this manner. Snappy names, like Nick Carr in Fantastic Voyage, and Frank Fargo in Ashes to Ashes have also helped me to move plotlines along when I have been stuck. But frivolous names ought not to detract from the primary aim, which is to tell a story, Ultimately it is the subject that will decide whether readers persevere. It needs to be something they can relate to, and in this current climate, it needs to have the feelgood factor. Something hunky dory. Sun, sea and sand, maybe. Retail therapy. Sweet things. My story could be about cakes. Master pâttisiers, Errol and Cheryl could be holding a buy-one-get-one-free cake sale at their shop. You can have a layered pound cake filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd topped with buttercream frosting along with a Dobos torte or with a chocolate cake with icing or a mascarpone cheesecake along with a cranberry coffee cake. The choice is yours, and the selection of delicacies is endless. I run the idea past Lucy. She is knowledgeable when it comes to cakes.
‘It doesn’t exactly lend itself to dramatic tension,’ she says.
‘Perhaps Errol and Cheryl might run out of cakes,’ I say. ‘And find themselves under pressure to come up with more before the customers queuing outside take matters into their own hands and start trashing the shop. Or they could find themselves in the middle of a full blooded layer-cake war with rival pâttisiers, Larry and Carrie.’
‘Ditch the cake idea, Matt,’ Lucy says. ‘It smacks of desperation. No matter how you dress it up, it isn’t going anywhere. To keep the reader interested, you need to come up with an idea that can accommodate reversals of fortune. A page-turner.’
‘So what do you think would work?’ I say. ‘Some kind of adventure story? Hero, quest, villain, risk, transformation, that kind of thing?’
‘Something along those lines,’ Lucy says. ‘With a happy ending, this time. Please!’
‘But don’t you think that’s too predictable?’ I say. ‘I mean, rules are there to be broken. What about an element of magical realism? That usually shakes things up. Or a quirky story that draws attention to its construction?’
‘Isn’t that what you are doing here, anyway?’ Lucy says.
Perhaps I am. Lucy is usually right. Even in a crisis, she remains level-headed. She seems to be able to stay focussed when sometimes I can’t see the woods for the trees.
‘Why don’t you throw in some time travel and maybe a talking cat or two?’ she adds.
‘H’mmm,’ I say. Even if Lucy is being facetious, it’s not a bad idea. ‘I haven’t had a talking cat for a while. Or an invisible train. Or a magic tree.’
‘Maybe you could feature a real-life celebrity,’ she says. ‘Or do you think you’ve overused that one?’
Have I got Lucy on board with the idea of a postmodern narrative now? I’m wondering if I might introduce Aldo Jett too, or Benito Pond, and resurrect Wet Blanket Ron. No, perhaps not Wet Blanket Ron. He is not the right sort of character to have around in an ongoing global pandemic. But metafiction is definitely the way to go.
‘Perhaps I might write you in as a character, Lucy,’ I say.
‘You could be in it too,’ Lucy says.
‘Why not? We could spring ourselves out of here.’
‘Exactly! We’ve been in one place too long.’
‘We could be whoever we want.’
‘We could be powerful people.’
‘I could be King and you could be Queen.’
‘I think I see where this is heading. We could be heroes. Just for one day.’
‘Or for ever and ever. What do you say?’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved