This is part three of a three-part essay featuring Parisian book activities by Christina Hamlett.
From my own experience, one of the most common questions that writers get asked by non-writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Yet strangely they never seem to be satisfied with the answer, “From real life.”
When my husband and I travel, I’m never without a notebook to jot down potential titles for articles, snippets of conversations or quirky character sketches that will eventually work their way into my books. A real writer, I think, can’t help but walk past a house and wonder who lives there, speculate about the relationships of people having lunch, or even imagine what a city must have looked like 20, 50 or 100 years ago.
Our recent trip to Paris was certainly no exception to this creative process, and I came away with a fun series of “brainstormers” to get your own imaginative juices flowing:
Stroll amongst the headstones and crypts, taking note of the art, masonry and inscriptions. (http://www.pariscemeteries.com provides a nice overview before you go.) Imagine the life and times of those who are buried and the families that spared no expense to memorialize them. Spooky note: in our self-guided tour of Montparnasse, we happened to come upon a sepulcher door that had been left open; could this mean that its ghostly inhabitant stepped out for a moment but will be returning shortly?
Watch the world go by over a glass of wine and a slice of quiche. The tables and chairs are assembled in close proximity, making it easy to eavesdrop on conversations. So you don’t speak French? No problem – make up your own dialogue to fit the ages, clothing and mannerisms of the people you’re observing. (It’s also fun to do this watching foreign TV shows without subtitles.)
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the screenwriter character of Gil (Owen Wilson) longs for a more romantic era…and finds it when a mysterious car whisks him off every evening to the 1920’s company of Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. In a reverse spin, choose your favorite artist, composer or writer that found inspiration in The City of Light, take yourself to the nearest park for some meditation, and imagine how s/he would react to the 21st century.
Paris is expensive to be sure but not if you’re just shopping for new plots. Study florist shops and decide what kind of flowers your fictional characters would buy for a first-date, an apology, a proposal or a break-up. Look at furniture store windows and imagine what kind of people will purchase the items displayed. Observe the salespeople and make up comedic/dramatic/supernatural stories about the lives they lead outside of work. Go to an open-air market (a Paris tradition since the 16th century); between the sellers and the buyers, you’ll get lots of ideas for new characters.
Life Imitating Art
Once upon a time I had an English teacher who would show us pictures of famous pieces of art and tell us to compose short stories based on our impressions. (Years later, it’s still an effective tool for unclogging those pesky mental cul de sacs.) There are over 60 museums and monuments in Paris – see where I’m going with this? – and if you purchase a 2, 4 or 6 day pass in advance (http://en.parismuseumpass.com), you can avoid the inevitably long queues and save yourself a lot of Euros. Once inside, you’ll find no shortage of plot material amongst the paintings, sculptures and artifacts.
Every Window Has a Personality Behind It
Contrary to what you always see in the movies, not every hotel room has an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower. Most of them, however, do have delightful views of Paris rooftops, dormer windows and balconies. I don’t know about you but I always love speculating about who lives in all those flats, how long they’ve been there and what kind of decorating they’ve done. At some point, you may even see one of the tenants open a window to water plants, hang laundry or step out on the fire escape for a smoke…and so your story begins!
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author whose credits to date include 28 books, 145 stage plays, 5 optioned feature films and squillions of articles and interviews. She is also a professional ghostwriter and script consultant for stage and screen. Visit her website at www.authorhamlett.com.