It is an exciting time here on Melly’s World this week! Please join me in welcoming professional fantasy author Sarah Ash.
Treasuring the Initial Image
I’m one of those writers that squirrels ideas away like a winter hoard of nuts and berries. Or maybe my type of writer is more like a vineyard owner, bottling the new vintage and trusting that in a year or more, it’ll mature and be ready for drinking. This kind of deferred gratification (or setting ideas aside to mature at the back of the mind) first came from necessity. I started writing again when I was a busy mum with two lively (though very rewarding!) sons and a return to teaching, so anything that occurred to me had to be scribbled down in a notebook or parked in an ideas file and saved for later. But, over the years, as the sons have grown up and gone on to make their own way in the world, I look back and see that the ‘saving an idea for later’ process is one that has stood me in good stead. It can be great to be able to write in the white-hot heat of immediate inspiration. That was the way I started out, after all! But many of the story ideas I’m working on now have been with me for a long time, quietly maturing.
As Emperor of the Fireflies, the second book of my Tide Dragons series, finally makes it Out There as an e-book (shameless self-promotion here) I find myself realizing that some of the main characters for this story have been with me for a long time. I first came across the legend of the Tide Dragons and the Pearls of Ebb and Flood a long while ago in a book of Japanese mythology in Bromley Library (I owe so much to our wonderful – and sadly disappearing – public libraries). And sometime around 1994 I sketched out the outline of a novel in which two warring clans in Heian era Japan encounter mythological creatures, including a kitsune fox spirit. Lady Ayame, young, spoiled daughter of the elegant court and the peace-loving Daichi, younger son of the warlike female leader of the Black Cranes clan were the main characters; between them came Naoki, heir to the White Eagles. But all this grew from one initial image of a windswept seashore on which a young man stumbled across the silvered sand toward the turbulent sea (and the Flood Dragon, Shiomitsu). Behind him, samurai warriors were engaged in a bitter battle and above them, high on the cliffs, towered a castle.
Time passed, I wrote other novels and although the image remained, young Lady Ayame became Ayaka (‘colourful flower’). I changed Daichi to Kaito (‘the sea’) and – to emphasize his peaceful nature, he became a trainee healer at the Tide Dragon Monastery, with a new name, Kaishin, given him by his master. Although the conflicted Naoki kept his original name, his exiled and embittered clan were renamed Akatobi: the Red Kites. Things inevitably change as the writer moves from the initial image to really getting to know the people that inhabit it and their world (inspired, not coincidentally, by my love of The Tale of Genji and Heike Monogatari ).
Quite what triggers that vital ‘initial image’ is a mystery. It will vary from writer to writer. In my case, it can even vary from story to story. It might be a piece of music (often so in my case) or an evocative smell, although not always a pleasant one; the fumes on an aged channel ferry made me feel simultaneously queasy and threw me back to my first ever crossing! I’m aware I’m straying into Proustian territory here, as smell and taste (that famous episode of the madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea) can indeed evoke powerful memories. However, the Initial Image may be nothing to do with personal memories at all. The importance of the image lies in the fact that it’s the one that will stay with you, the writer, throughout all the ups and downs, the vicissitudes and hair-tearing of the actual writing process – glimmering, unspoiled and meaningful at a deep level. It’s close, in concept to the ‘Inciting Incident’ but it has a more dreamlike, magical quality. The Inciting Incident, so beloved of writing coaches, is the single stand-out event that precipitates your character/s (and plot) into action at the very beginning of the story and, if you’re doing your job right, also foreshadows what’s to come.
Why is it important? Because when everything’s going wrong with your writing (and believe me, it will almost always go wrong before it goes right again, it’s part of the process) invoking that initial image will remind you why you started in the first place. It should remain in the mind’s eye, a little indistinct, perhaps – but unsullied, glimmering with promise, inspiring you to get back on track. Back in the world you created for your story.
Sarah Ash has been writing since she was a child – but also spent many years teaching music. Creating fantasy novels has allowed her to explore her fascination with the way mythology and history overlap and interact (her second published novel Songspinners is set in an ‘alternate’ eighteenth century Bath, her home city).The five novels in the popular epic fantasy Artamon sequence (Penguin Random House) are also set in an alternate eighteenth century world – with daemons and dragons. Emperor of the Fireflies, the second book of the new Tide Dragons series, is now available as an e-book and was inspired by her love of all things Japanese (especially manga and anime which she regularly reviews). It’s an historical fantasy that draws on the ancient legend of the Tide Jewels and the lifestyle of the Heian imperial court. And of course, there are secretive shinobi, wily fox spirits – and Tide Dragons.