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Researching Background For A Short Story Plot

Short Story ideas can be thin on the ground for some writers, and two-a-penny for others. Sometimes it is just when the writer needs his ‘muse’ the most (for example for a last-minute contest opportunity) that it deserts him most spectacularly!

Ideas for stories however, abound in the world around us. Unfortunately, it is at the time when writers get most stressed out by deadlines, or by collections that need filling out, that they just can’t see ideas for looking - and this is the term that some people refer to as ‘writers block.’

For some writers, the key is to switch off, take a break or vacation, and look outwards towards their immediate environment – its culture, history, ambience and general ‘buzz.’ A holiday is an ideal opportunity for soaking up the atmosphere of a new town or country or even just watching its life go by while drinking coffee at a pavement cafe. The experience can often inspire so many new leads and scenarios, that the different plots need to be noted down quickly before the muse vanishes again!

On a recent trip to a sun-washed fishing village overlooking a copious harbour full of jaunty blue and green fishing boats, this writer was struck by the picturesque veil that the village may have presented to the outside world and casual visitor.

Fishing can be a dire occupation for many nowadays. Poorly paid, hazardous, cold, wet, and often unappreciated, a livelihood earned at sea can involve many unpleasant and inconvenient truths. Men spend long stretches of time away from wives and families, some suffer lethal or crippling injuries and many are full of anger at unfair government legislation and limiting fishing quotas. Some families have even had to scrap their boats, breaking up vessels that may have been in the family for years.

As if that was not material enough for the short story writer with a social conscience, history is even richer. Ideas and sources aplenty can be found by visiting local town museums. Here will be arrayed, often in the pathos of sepia, generations of gnarled time-worn faces from photographs going back to Victorian times. Family members gaze blankly out - those who have lost men at sea - sometimes all the menfolk from one family – husband, father, sons, brothers and grandfathers. Sweethearts too, must have been bereaved and mysteries never solved, perhaps of boats which disappeared without a trace.

Fishing superstitions of old were based on an aural tradition of folk stories and this is a rich treasury of literature too, for the short story writer.
Documentaries also, can complement the sea-salty artefacts of the local museum. The latest finds, facts and discoveries from offshore shipwrecks can tell a sorry tale about the last days and movements of the crews – explaining for example, the significance of the lobster pots, crusty old creels, bits of pottery, cannon balls and bits of treasure that got left behind on the sea bed.

A documentary on the sinking of the mediaeval English warship ‘The Mary Rose,’ coincided with this writer’s vacation visit to a traditional fishing town. The program told of wreck skeletons with shoulder injuries that suggested a life of punishing archery practise, and of others with knee damage resulting from the dropping of heavy weights such as cannons. Many wreck skeletons displayed teeth which had formed in the Spanish regions, rather than in England, suggesting that the sailors may have been captives who had been press-ganged into the service of Henry V111. Unwilling ‘knaves’ – they may have had little interest in the safe passage of the ship. Many may have had sweethearts and families back home who never knew what had happened to them.

All these short story scenarios and many more can be inspired by researching vacation destination museums thoroughly and well, or by scouring historical research books. Hopefully, some will yield a rich tapestry of tales – for the writer who has the luxury of time to write them!

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