There are a number of ways that stories come to me, one is using writing prompts because they always spark ideas or images in my mind. Some result in a short story or, occasionally a poem, but others have become full blown novels.
I recently responded to the prompt below and the character emerged complete in my mind. I could see him walking along the sidewalk, and the effect he had on the people he passed. He may appear in a future novel – who knows. Some characters stay with me and after a time begin to demand attention. This one is mysterious and I am keen to know his backstory and his future plans.
Heads turned, chatter ceased and whispers began as the tall, dark clothed man strode along the high street. His focused gaze ahead, never glancing at the store fronts, or the recoiling of other pedestrians as he passed by. The summer atmosphere cooled as an ominous air pervaded his very being. The holiday town was used to many visitors but this one was different and dangerous.
Would you like to ‘meet’ this character?
One prompt that resulted in a published book was my novella, The Rython Kingdom, which was actually a series of prompts that combined into the basis of the story. The prompts were – blue beads, a beast and a medieval town. You can read the full story (and its sequel if you want) here:
Another inspiration are dreams. And the reason, I have a small notebook on my bedside table. If I don’t write it down immediately, the dream dissipates never to be remembered again. The opening sequence of The Commodore’s Gift was a snippet of a dream that just needed to be used in a story. At the time, I had no idea that Owena, would become such a integral part of the story and evolve into it’s central character.
Do you have questions about my writing inspiration? Please ask on the comments, I will be happy to answer them all.
A lot of us look forward to summer – it’s heat, long days and lazy days in the garden/yard. Of BBQ’s, beaches and the open road. This , of course, depends on the continent you live on and the weather cycles. I am not a heat person and like to stay at 22°C degrees with a breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. They absolutely love my English blood, here in Canada.
I wrote this poem a while ago about impending summer.
Summer, you are long awaited
Through snow, sleet and rain, your heat and blasting glory
Pull us through.
Memories of sea and sand, camp fires and BBQ gatherings
Pull us through.
Green lushness, long days and outside chores planned
Pull us through
Then you are here – Summer – our darling
Flowers are planted, friends and family gather and lawns cut
Garden furniture released from storage and nature’s sounds surround
Vacations, road trips and splashing in the pool
Long awaited, now enjoyed.
We love you Summer.
This summer there will be road trips to look forward to based on a new contest for Go East. Linda and I have already collected stickers from two routes and will explore new places over the summer months. Our first trip was ambitious driving two routes in one long day (15 hours to be precise!), so now we have planned stop overs for the remaining routes. Making it much more leisurely and giving us the ability to explore more.
The other trip we are taking includes one of the areas included in the adventure game, but for another reason. We are hosting and presenting for When Words Collide. This is an annual event and is virtual this year. We have booked an isolated cabin on private land beside a lake. The perfect writing and relaxation retreat, as well as a great dog walking venue.
I have received the last editing workshop comments and will be diving into the next round of revisions of book one in the Delphic Murders, An Elusive Trail, in the coming weeks. I am excited for this project and hope that you will enjoy the stories once they are published.
A beautifully told story centering around a particular house during two different time periods. Barbara has expertly woven the two story lines and the inhabitants lives together. The core of the novel centers on the real life of a intriguing woman, Mary Treat. Someone history should take notice of and celebrate.
Without the luxury of travel during COVID, regular writing retreats have been cancelled, but it is not all bad news. We can create our own mini retreat at home. There will be some necessary arrangements to be made, which relate to your personal circumstances but it can be done. If you have a full household ask if it is possible for your partner to take your children out for an extended walk or to a play ground or even outside yard activities? Set times that you want to write without interruptions. This may be early morning or late evening, a time of day that you can set aside for writing. If staying in the home is too difficult, maybe drive to a secluded spot and write in a notebook to type up later. There is always somewhere you can find to accommodate writing time.
The length of time you have for your retreat will, of course, depend on what is possible for you. You may have two hours a day over a couple of days or a day or two. Before creating your retreat think about the following:
Why do you need a retreat? This might seem like a silly question but take the time to decide if the retreat has a direct purpose for your writing.
What is your goal? Again ask yourself, what can this retreat help you accomplish. Is it to begin or finish a project, a full edit, or a final read through?
Once you have identified these two points, you can plan by initially setting targets with measurable realistic goals, don’t overwhelm yourself. Depending on the time allotted for your retreat, create a daily writing plan. What are your objectives for each day? This can be writing or editing a certain number of pages, sequencing chapter content or revising scenes.
It is important to eliminate distractions as much as possible allowing you to concentrate. This should include switching off your cell phone, setting specific times for social media interactions, or even setting a timer!
The more you organize before hand the better your experience will be. Let’s look at some essentials.
Plan Your Retreat Time– use your preference – a simple sheet with goals for each day/hour, or a whiteboard with retreat objectives or notes in a day planner.
Tools – these can include a notebook, laptop, post-its, record cards, mood board, a print out of your manuscript, reference books or research sites bookmarked on your search engine. Everything that you need to successfully accomplish your goal.
Snacks& Water– the brain needs to be fed and watered as you delve into your project. Have plenty of water and easy nibbles handy.
Space – designate a space where you will work, where you and your tools will not be disturbed.
Rewards – how will you reward yourself for accomplishing your set goals? Decide how, it can be going for a walk, or thirty minutes on social media, or relaxing reading a book.
Remember this time is ultimately for you and your writing, a time to invest in your craft.
I’d love to hear your experiences with a home writing retreat.How did you achieve it?
How important are the arts and your creativity to you?
Life is nothing without the arts. Think of what we do to relax: listen to music, watch movies, read books, go dancing. And yet, when it comes down to a budget crisis, these seem to be the things that are cut because they’re considered somehow “non-essential.” I beg to differ. They’re life-affirming and allow us to share the human experience through the eyes and imagination of others. You can’t put a price on that. As for my own creativity, it’s present in almost everything I do.
How did you come up with the idea of the title, Music from a Strange Planet?
The book title for my short story collection is from one of my stories. In that story, “Music from a Strange Planet,” a talented and precocious girl wins an award for her composition called “Music from a Strange Planet,” a contemporary orchestral piece based on the convergence of cricket choruses. I, too, was a little girl who loved insects and nature (still do). There’s an undercurrent of insect references in the collection and small references to music throughout, so I thought giving the book this title would convey a sense of wonder and suggest to readers that they’ll be entering the particular, idiosyncratic worlds of a variety of characters in a particular moment in their lives. The “strangeness,” to me, is not so much weirdness, but points to a sense of mystery.
What drew you to write short stories rather than longer narratives?
In writing, in both poetry and fiction, I’ve always been a minimalist. I like writing and reading works that are succinct, compressed and convey a distinct mood in a few words or pages. I do read novels, but because I’m so attuned to concision, I find them wordy, even if they aren’t! I’m a writer whose problem is not wordiness but a tendency toward spareness. That, however, is why I love to write and read short stories. They’re a leap into a crucial point in a character’s life. We usually meet the character at a turning point and sometimes at the end there’s a sense of closure or development and sometime there isn’t. Some readers dislike short stories for that reason. That’s why I love them.
Where do you find your inspiration?
In many art forms! When writing’s going slowly, or when I’m not writing, I turn to the writing, music, art, dance of others. Or I slip into the garden and merge with the plants. I read critical works or essays about writing, I pore through literary journals. I subscribe to art and décor magazines, and garden design magazines, so I get a dose of creative ideas and people from all angles. A lot of my friends are also musicians, poets and visual artists so they inspire me with their own creations.
What exactly is a short story?
First of all, I wish we had a different term for the short story. These two words sound a bit dismissive to me. Not that long ago, the short story was denigrated as the shorter, lesser cousin of the novel. But rather than saying what it isn’t, here’s my take on what a short story is. It’s compact, it implies, it suggests. It contains subtext that requires the reader to work a little harder to unlock its meaning. Every detail in the story works hard to point the reader to the underlying context: setting, back story, character history, tone, imagery. It’s brief and intense and often does not give the reader closure. A novel is expansive, its narrative, plot and cast ever-widening. A short story goes in the opposite direction: inward and compressed. It doesn’t explain. It allows the reader to experience an intense event in a character’s life which often ends in a moment of awareness.
Your stories and poems deal with deep inner perspectives and emotions – what draws you to these topics/themes?
It’s characters themselves who draw me toward their stories and so unknowingly to certain themes or emotions that are operating in my subconscious.
Does your music influence your writing or vice a versa (or is it a symbolic relationship)?
Yes, it does! I’ve written several flash and poetry pieces that were inspired by musical recordings. And I’m a musician (voice and piano).
With regard to poetry, music does subtly influence my writing. Lots of people have remarked that my poetry is “very musical,” but by that they don’t mean it’s “rhymey.” I simply have an inherent and ingrained sense of melody, rhythm, pacing, and it shows up when I write. In prose, for example, I’m very particular about how a sentence reads and sounds, how it unfolds, whether it needs to race ahead or proceed slowly, how it reflects the character’s voice or emotions. Every sentence, in that respect, is like a tiny musical score that can influence the reader.
You designed the cover of your book. How did this come about?
A few years ago a social media whiz friend of mine told me that as a writer I should be on Instagram. Since I don’t have a cute dog or a photogenic cat, I wondered what I could post about. Because Instagram’s mostly a visual medium, I came up with the idea of collaging my writing. Except that I didn’t know how to collage! So the self-imposed crash course began, and I really started to enjoy dealing with visuals for a change. It was fascinating to choose a very short excerpt from a poem, flash or short story and illustrate it in paper. I continue to challenge myself to try different approaches and now have a small following, which is both surprising and pretty delightful. When my Caitlin Press publisher Vici Johnstone learned about my collages, she asked me if I would be interested in collaging my own book cover! I said yes, and after five or six trials, arrived at the illustration of a woman transforming into a caribou, which seems to intrigue people. It’s also based on a character in one of my stories.
Where do you write?
When cafes were open before the pandemic, I often went for a coffee, took my teeny-tiny Moleskin writing journal with me and found inspiration among the hubbub of chatter and clatter. I always write first drafts by hand and never, ever, at a desk. I prefer to slump on my small sofa in the living room or go out to my back garden studio and write from a low-slung chair while the birds twitter outside.
Just how tiny is your writing journal and why?
There’s a story to this! A few years ago I attended the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. On the first day, we each got a gift bag from the organizers which contained, among other things, a very compact writing journal. At the time I always wrote in a lined 8 X 11-inch coiled workbook. I scoffed that I would never use such a tiny journal. Off I went that afternoon to a café to write, except that I had forgotten my usual workbook. I wrote in that tiny, unlined book. I loved it. I have now filled over 40 of the compact Moleskin journals. In fact, all the short stories in Music from a Strange Planet were composed in them!
A writer’s not a writer without readers. Thank you, readers, for making my book come to life in your own imagination. And many thanks for the interview, Mandy.
Barbara Black writes fiction, flash fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in Canadian and international magazines and anthologies including the 2020 Bath Flash Fiction Award anthology, The CincinnatiReview, The New Quarterly, CV2, Geist and Prairie Fire. She was recently a finalist in the 2020 National Magazine Awards, nominated for the 2019 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and won the 2017 Writers’ Union of Canada Short Fiction Award. She lives in Victoria, BC, Canada. http://www.barbarablack.ca, @barbarablackwriter and @bblackwrites.