November 21, 2014

The Lamp-post in the Wood

        In the next week we have the anniversaries of C.S. Lewis’s birth and his death, so this seems a good time to mention Narnia.  The Narnia books are, of course, extravagantly praised and extravagantly condemned for their Christian theology, and I intend to write about religion in fantasy some other time.  But Lewis himself didn’t set out originally to write Christian apology for children, however much Narnia may have ended up there.  In fact, as he said himself, it “all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: 'Let's try to make a story about it.’”  It’s funny that this picture stayed with him so long, because it’s the same picture that has stayed with me the most clearly, with the addition of the lamp-post, glowing in the snowy dusk.  It’s not the escape through the woods, or the childrens’ heroism, or even the resurrection of Aslan that stays with me most vividly, but that picture of the lamp-post, Mr Tumnus, the parcels, the umbrella, and the snow.
        So the principle I’m interested in today is how a story doesn’t need to begin with a grand concept - even a story that ends up being about as grand a concept as Christian Salvation.  In fact, often the books with the aim of grand concept-ness only end up being preachy.  A good story begins with something that begs to have a story told about it.  I’ve written about how my story The Extraordinary Book of Doors was inspired quite simply by the images and ideas evoked by the title of Sebastiano Serlio’s Extraordinary Book of Doors.  Sometimes a story is inspired by an imagined character.  Sometimes it starts with an interesting setting, sometimes with a little-known factoid (I think a lot of whodunits begin with factoids.)  So the point is that anything can potentially inspire a story.  The trick is to notice these inspirational snippets - notice them, remember them, cherish them, revisit them, mull about them, and then sit down and actually begin to write.  That’s the stage I’m in now, with a sequel to The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  I’ve collected pages of notes on all manner of little inspirations: historical facts, new characters, lines of conversation, and other cool things.  But now I have to write, because no inspiration, however brilliant, is a story until I can get it out of my head and onto the page.

[Picture: Meeting Mr Tumnus, book sculpture by Justin Rowe, 2013 (Image from Days Fall Like Leaves).]
Quotation from It All Began with a Picture, C.S. Lewis, 1960.

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