Sometimes, what we really need in life is the Sorting Hat or Granny Weatherwax.
But, it’s much easier to come up with a whimsical, magical idea than it is to write it convincingly in a story. You have to deal with all sorts of attendant perils that you wouldn’t face if you were to write a lovely realist crime novel about middle-class ladies who are contemplating murdering the postman. The biggest and most pressing question, for me at least, is always: how do I write this in such a way that it does NOT read like an arbitrary piece of rubbish I just flung into a story because I couldn’t be bothered to do any research about a real thing?
Because if you don’t root them properly into the story, whimsical things always do look arbitrary. They are not, by their very nature, things universally recognised. The postman in that crime story doesn’t need explaining. We all know what postmen are, how they work, and why. But we don’t know any of that about talking hats, or witches who transpose their consciousnesses into swarms of bees.
If you write realism, especially if it’s set now, your whole story is supported by things the reader already knows. Geography, society’s general rules, the nature of the postal service. That broad base of reader knowledge means the writer can get to character and plot very quickly.
But writers of strange things often have to construct that understanding of background from scratch. This is a horrifying prospect. Imagine how long and cumbersome that crime novel would be, if we had to go around explaining what a postbox is, and how the bubbles get into the ladies’ prosecco? But that’s just what fantasy, speculative fiction, and really anything with a weird element must do.
More perils await. You can’t really explain what a postbox is without introducing the postal service, and postmen, sorting centres, stamps, addresses, postal codes, birthday cards, and all the rest. Because it has to sit logically in a story, and readers are horribly prone to curiosity. They say things like, yes, but WHY would there be no deliveries on Sundays? And then you end up having to explain Christianity, when all you wanted to do was write a quick murder story about some ladies and a postman.
The swamp of information that has to go in somehow can feel overwhelming.
I think the clearest way out of the swamp is actually quite simple. It’s difficult, because it takes the sort of mental fortitude required to NOT scream the answer at University Challenge even when you know you’re right — but it isn’t complicated.
It is: one weird thing at a time.
Anyone becomes hopelessly lost if we’re expected to learn too many new things at once, and it would be silly to imagine readers are any different: I’m definitely not.
So, rather than trying to start a story with a complicated scene in which you include a fantastical, whimsical idea fully fledged — instead of beginning with a huge fight between someone who has magically weaponised piano music on a specially designed piano, versus an evil dark lord intent on destroying the world for reasons you must explain at length mid scene; don’t. It’s much easier, and much more stable, to begin with one, simple, strange thing.
Perhaps the story starts with pianist who realises that, upon hearing a particular melody for tenth or twelfth time, some people in the orchestra are beginning to go mad. Just that.
And then one small thing more; and another, and another. Build up enough up of them, each one a logical consequence of the last, and you can make even the strangest idea feel not only sensible, but inevitable. Even better, if you start with the tiniest possible consequence of your idea, and finish with the largest, you have a kind of automatic plot arc.
This approach doesn’t solve all the problems of writing about weird things; but I think it does help, and so far for me anyway, it’s proven itself to be pretty nifty.
Natasha Pulley studied English Literature at Oxford University. After stints working at Waterstones as a bookseller, then at Cambridge University Press as a publishing assistant in the astronomy and maths departments, she did the Creative Writing MA at UEA. She later studied in Tokyo, where she lived on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. She was chosen to be a Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library and is now associate lecturer at Bath Spa University and panel tutor at the Cambridge University Institute of Continuing Education. Her first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, was an international bestseller, won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. The Bedlam Stacks is her second novel. She lives in Bath.