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When a promising setting doesn’t provide inspiration

The book that really captured my imagination as a child was The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It mentions black spaces on maps – imagine! There actually was a time when the word Unexplored was commonplace, and Conan Doyle’s book was the adventure story of my dreams. I did think the premise extremely unlikely – a sheer-sided plateau, isolated, unexplored, full of prehistoric creatures? And then I went to Venezuela.
These table-topped mountains really do exist; they’re called tepuis, and there are still some that haven’t been climbed. You can see why. The Angel Falls tumble from one of them, and we climbed to the pool beneath over tangled tree-roots and ankle-turning stones – and that was the easy bit. The sheer face would have been another matter altogether. You wouldn’t even be able to lower someone from a helicopter, as they’d probably fetch up in the canopy with no way down. But what a gift for a writer. The sort of place where anything might exist, and anything could happen. And despite the gung-ho imperialist anthropocentric storyline, I don’t think anyone’s exploited that environment any better than Conan Doyle.

I’ve frequently used a setting I’ve experienced in my travels as a starting point for a story, as you remember all the smells and the tastes as well as what you see and hear and touch. So when I went to Galapagos I was armed with a camera and notebooks, fully expecting to come back with a story I couldn’t wait to write. And what happened? It turned out to be the most difficult project I’ve ever tackled. I’m still editing it, six years later. I’ve wondered a lot about this, and these are my conclusions.
Galapagos is now a huge tourist destination. It’s strictly controlled, and with good reason; the flora and fauna are unique, and invasions from other places could be devastating. Sniffer dogs patrol the arrival area at the little airport, searching for seeds of alien species. Even boat trips between the different islands involve rigorous checks. You are limited as to where you can go, and wherever you do go there are going to be other people. Although the scenery is remarkable – particularly on South Plaza Island, with its red vegetation – you couldn’t get lost on it. And on the more popular islands you’d never meet an animal that hasn’t been photographed a thousand times. Even underwater the sea lions that buzz you, the turtles that swim lazily alongside you, the iguanas that feed on the sea bed – they’ve all starred in numerous documentaries, and you might well believe they had really good agents.

In other words it’s all beautiful, exotic, and different – but the unexpected is in short supply, and it’s the unexpected that is meat and drink to a storyline. Your back garden and a stereoscope are more likely to reveal something that hasn’t been seen before. Surely Alien was inspired by the gruesome ichneumon fly? Nature had all the best horror ideas first.
Technology may have given us excellent tools like the stereoscope, but no sooner has someone arrived in some obscure part of the world than they’re posting their photos on Facebook, and uploading their videos onto YouTube. Television has turned the depths of the ocean and the tops of mountains into familiar territory. The private lives of dangerous beasts are common knowledge. No longer can you lose your hero unless you have an elephant trample his mobile phone, or a serial killer trash her SatNav. Perhaps this is why so many writers opt for fantasy, science fiction or historical scenarios. Even the fifties is a better place to be than the 21st century. We live on an overpopulated planet, and things can only get worse. As we eat up all our resources, our imaginations become victims too. Any suggestions for an obscure destination? Apart from North Korea, that is.

Posted by author: Liz Newman
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4 thoughts on “When a promising setting doesn’t provide inspiration

  • Great post thanks Liz. I’ve wondered the same way about taking a setting that is so stunning it would help ideas come along but found it frustrating!
    I read a great sci-fi of book recently that took the idea of an incredible world and really integrated well into the culture of the people in the book (Dark Eden). Saying that maybe the ever shrinking wild is something that maybe opens up opportunities for plots? Characters struggling to defend a place or way of life as one idea. I watched The Field recently after a long time and it really amazed me how the character’s obsession with his field and his actions to hold onto it were dealt with in the film , it drew in themes of loyalty, poverty (almost everything).
    Your point about the back garden showing more surprising things really reminded me that in a lot of ways it’s sometimes the ordinariness of a setting that gives room for a story to unfold. Ballard’s High Rise and Cocaine Nights remind me of these, where it exactly a familiar or artificial setting that provides Ballard the ability put up boundaries to enclose the odd societies that develop and implode inside them.
    Thanks again for that post- really got me thinking!

  • Enjoyed reading your post Liz and agree with your thoughts on this, It reminded me of two sayings/comments:
    Confucius said, ” A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace” and,
    Bill Odie commented once on the importance of having one’s ‘own patch’ for birdwatching which might only be a window-sill.
    It is amazing though how people still manage to come up with ideas and plots for writing, art and music after all this time.

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