I have no clue where story ideas come from. Maybe it’s science – something to do with misfiring neurons or mangled memories or eating too much spicy food. The truth is, I don’t really care. Creative writing is mostly about slog and self-doubt; there’s little time to philosophise. The ideas come and the ideas go, like animals migrating across the African plain. If I can separate just one from the herd, I reckon I’m doing well.
Just occasionally, I’ll experience one of those precious moments of epiphany, when the herd scatters to leave a single prime specimen staring me right in the eye. Think god rays beaming down from the heavens and all the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. It really does happen, you know.
It happened to me yesterday while I was taking my lunchtime walk (ideas often arrive when I’m walking or driving and that’s probably science too). Three things in my head suddenly collided and the god rays came down. If there hadn’t been people around, I’d have cried.
The first of those three things was a childhood memory. As a kid, I was an enthusiastic modelmaker. At one time my bedroom was home to over a hundred plastic construction kits: fighter planes, galleons, tanks, you name it. But my pride and joy was a model railway. I had little interest in the trains themselves, just spent hours building a tiny world to sit them in. I’ve jotted the words ‘model railway’ in various notebooks over the years, knowing that one day I’d write about that meticulous miniature world but never knowing how or why. Now I’ve worked it out.
The second thing was the realisation that my children have become adults. If, like me, you’re a parent suddenly discovering the nest is a lot emptier than it used to be, you might recognise the complex broth of emotion that accompanies this revelation. The closest I can get to describing it today is sweet pride salted with grief; that’s nowhere near good enough but it’ll do for now.
The third and final component was a traditional Zulu song I first heard at a Soweto Gospel Choir concert. It’s called Ngahlulele. Music frequently informs the words I put down, although I prefer to do the actual writing in silence. Turns out this song is the soundtrack for the end of my story.
As clearly as I see these separate components, I’m still none the wiser as to why they chose that moment to collide in my head, nor why the collision generated the story idea it did. In reading the above, you’ll most likely be puzzled or confused. I’d like to think you’re intrigued. No matter. The important thing now is writing the story down. And that’s the really, really hard part. Unwritten stories are china shops and, like most writers, I’m a bull.
If I do manage to get the words down without breaking them, I’ll let you know. And if I screw things up? Well, in that case you’ll probably never hear again about a story with the improbable working title of Ngahlulele Junction.