Storytelling seeds

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Illustration by Wayne Anderson

When it comes to telling a story, either live or written down in a handmade story book, I prefer to make up the story as I go along. This ensures that the telling of the tale is a journey of discovery from start to finish – for me, as well as for the reader.

Even though I aim to start with an empty mind, it helps to have a seed around which the story can grow. For inspiration I use the StoryWorld cards – a pack of beautifully illustrated cards, created by John and Caitlín Matthews and illustrated by various artists. Each card portrays a story image – characters, objects, and places – both in the everyday world and the realms of magic. The pictures in this post are by two of my favourites, Paul Hess and Wayne Anderson.

To begin, I relax, take a few deep breaths, and think of the person for whom I am writing the story. Then I pull a card and trust my initial responses to the picture. What are the first ideas and associations when I look at the card? Is there anything in the image that jumps out at me?

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Illustration by Paul Hess

It’s not unlike pulling tarot cards to tell your fortune. In this case, the cards are telling the “fortune” of the story. (You can use any tarot deck for this purpose, although I would recommend a deck where the minor arcana are also fully illustrated.) I allow myself a couple of minutes for the storytelling seed to land in some fertile soil, and then I start writing.

It might sound a little reckless, but I write in ink on the pages of a book handmade especially for this story. There is no rubbing out of words, no going back to add or change anything. This keeps me on my toes and creates a feeling similar to that of telling a story to a live audience. Once the words are out of your mouth, you can’t take them back! I set the scene of the story and follow as far as that first image will take me.

There was once a fisherman who lived on an island. He knew all the islanders and they knew him. The window of his house faced out to sea and the door led straight to his fishing boat. Each morning he would wake with the sun and set off for the day’s catch. When he sold his fish at the market, he would holler in his booming voice: ‘Fresh!’ For he was a man with a chest like a barrel and legs like tree trunks. In the evening, he would sit by the fire and read tales of the sea.

– The Tale of the Fisherman and the Sea

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Illustration by Paul Hess

When the story begins to run out of steam, I pick a second card. This gives the tale a fresh turn, something far more interesting than what I could have planned in advance. Sometimes three cards is enough, and they seem to guide me through a three act story structure. But it can sometimes take five cards or more to complete the story.

The old woman said: ‘My heart is locked in a box that I keep on the mantelpiece. I put it in there one day when I was spring cleaning. But then I misplaced the key. Can you open it?’

The Enchanted Forest

There is something about a picture that appeals directly to the imagination. A story illustration often seems to bypass the rational mind and travels straight to a place inside, where story has a language all its own: a language of images. The particulars of my favourite childhood stories are long forgotten, but the pictures from those stories are firmly lodged in my memory. The earliest picture I can remember is that of a monkey swinging through the trees. I remember my grandfather reading me the story at bedtime, long before I was able to read.

I have no idea what the story was, but I can still see that monkey, swinging through the trees.

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