The Storyteller’s Tool Kit

Where do I get my ideas from? 

Here, There and Everywhere. 

Random image of tentacles taken at Pompeii

Welcome story geniuses. I thought I’d write a post about the storyteller’s tool kit. Like most toolkits, you’ll see that my toolbox is filled with the usual tools. You know, the common ones like inspiration, structure, research, tech. I add a couple of personal ones in there too like music, movies, and people. 

#Tool 1 Inspiration

As you know, all stories come from an idea. Yes, just the one. This one idea can fragment into many. Think of a lightbulb with dozens of light rays spreading out across a dark room. Imagine a mosiac art work, the whole made up of  splintered ceramic or stone pieces, and if you isolate one section, there is another story there. What about a kaleidoscope and as you turn the dial, the fratal changes into another pattern. 

But as a writer, you mustn’t forget your central idea for that story you’re writing at the moment. 

So, I am working on a YA novel, my first. I was inspired by a central idea of the master and servant relationship. I wanted to explore this through the lens of an indentured servant. 

#Tool 2 Research

It all started with my curiosity about how societies treated their help. From that broad question, I narrowed it down to a culture and heritage I know well: I wanted to explore an oppressive system that originated in China, where poor girls were sold to wealthy families as servants. 

Indentured servitude is not uncommon as there are many forms of slavery as well as different notions of perceived freedom. Indentured servants have existed in Southeast Asia for the longest time in various forms and guises. In particular, I wanted to find out more about mui tsai or young girls working in the homes of wealthy Straits Chinese or Peranakan-Chinese. Then, this got me thinking about migrant workers and their plight, which led me down the rabbit hole of finding out as much as I could about the migrant worker situation around the world. 

My mind was going full speed everywhere but to nowhere. So, I reigned myself in. What is my central idea?—the master and servant relationship. What was my focus?—indentured servitude. 

#Tool 3 Setting 

Since all stories have to take place somewhere—real or imagined—I picked British Malaya because I know this landmass far better than Hong Kong or China. I am a Peranakan-Chinese because my ancestors braved monsoon winds and sailed across the South China Sea to Malaya, so what better place to start from than examining the cultural history and lives of the Straits Chinese, my ancestors? 

But Malaya was connected to the Empire, with its headquarters located on an island situated between the the  North Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. 

My mind was going places again. But hang on, I need to focus. So I returned again to Malaya, in particular Singapore, country of my birth. 

#Tool 4 Structure

All stories have a structure. This Aristotelian idea is an ideal and as storytellers we must let structure guide us. There’s a beginning, middle and an end to every story—always. 

My novel starts media res—in the middle. Funny how the middle became my beginning, hey? I only came to this decision after redrafting the initial structure and I can tell you, it wasn’t funny because I had to rewrite almost 10,000 words of the original manuscript. This consisted of my making a developmental change and then rewriting the parts to fit in with the change. Mind you, developmental editing is what editors do for authors all the time. So I switched a couple of parts around, rewrote some bits, and the story took another shape of its own. 

Think of structure as a squiggly line that moves up to a point of climax and drops again and ends at the point of resolution which leads us to what is known as the denouement. That’s French for the final outcome and it’s a literary term used by industry wigs to show off their prowess. Literary theory and criticism aside, we need to remember that all journeys must come to an end and it’s no different for stories. But where is the end? Most would consider the end as the part whre the hero of the journey finds what they were looking for or found the answer to their quest/search. Now, solving the problem (resolution) in the story is not the same as the outcome, denouement, of the story. The denouement can end in a catastrophe (think Wuthering Heights) or it can end happily ever after (think Cinderalla). 

To get structure in order, I needed to think of a sequence of events that will move my story forward. I had to know that this happaned first, then this happened next, then that happened after, so on and so forth, until I come to the end of my tale. 

The best way to see your sequence of events is to write them out. Illustrators do a storyboard. There’s nothing stopping those who can’t draw from doing the same. You can use stick figures, if you want. 

But all story structures or shapes are based on the central idea: the Main Character’s journey in the book. 

#Tool 5 Tech and the Muse

Technology is a great tool for any writer. I use a MacBook and organise my writing into files. Some people swear by Scrivener. I haven’t dabbled there yet because it requires that I learn how to use the tool. But I’ve been told that once you’ve learnt to, it’s no sweat. 

But the best tool of all is YOU. As a writer you’ve just got to turn up. Here is a previous post on what my day looks like. As I write for a living and not always fun stuff, I am forced to turn up. My favourite author said this, ‘turn up, turn up, turn up and the muse will turn up too.” She is none other than Isabel Allende. 

For extra help on inspiration, structure, setting and research, I turn to Netflix fo plot, characterisation and the 3-Act Structure. I just watched Pieces of A Woman. It’s not for everyone, I will say. But it was superb acting and I was thoroughly convinced that the main character was really giving birth. I wanted to see how the script writer had used the 3-Act Structure to plot her story. And, I tell you what, it’s there—the beginning, middle, end, with everything in a writer’s took kit thrown in—inciting incident, sub-plots, small crises, big crises, the crisis—resolution, and outcome. 

Music makes its way into my daily routine too when I’m feeling the blues and get stuck on a plot point. My latest is listening to covers by Carly Rose (Sonenclar)

And last but not least: People. My favourite people is my family. So I turn to them for sustenance. 

A Day In the Life of a Writer

Well, it’s been a full day’s work again today. Like for most people with regular jobs. Writing is a lonely day job, but it nonetheless takes up a whole day, if you’re a professional writer like me. Writing is my regular job. 

What Does A Typical Day Look Like for Me?

6 am – I am up.

6:30 am – I read and answer my emails with a cup of coffee. 

7:30 am – I start work. My current WIP is a YA novel that I’m in the middle of writing. I decided to change the POV this morning. So, I had to rewrite over 10,000 words of the current MS, changing from 3rd to 1st. 

10:00 am – I jump on a zoom call with my business partner, Debasmita Dasgupta. We discuss a new project—writing a graphic novel together. 

11:00 am – comfort break. I make my second cup of coffee. Have a light snack.

11:15 am – I work on a current project: researching and writing blog posts for an in-house e-zine.

13:15 – lunch break. Today, I reheated some hot and sour soup from the day before. Sometimes, I get an Uber Eats or Deliveroo. 

13:45 – I do some research on another project about therapeutic jurisprudence in family law. This is a ghost-writing project for a legal practice outside the UK.

15:45 – I check into moodle at the Roehampton University and listen to my lectures on the MA Children’s Literature. This week we are learning about Historical Fiction in Children’s Literature. This is my favourite genre. 

17:30 – comfort break

17:45 – reply to emails that have come in during the time I haven’t been checking emails. Make a note of who to reply to ASAP and who to KIV for tomorrow.

18:45 – stop work to cook dinner. Tonight we are having pasta ragù from Nonna Tonda, a pasta and sauce delivery company. My life is made easier because all I do is boil the fresh pasta and reheat the sauce. 

20:00 – if I have the energy, I write for another 1 to 1.5 hours. This is always my own work.

22:00 – reading time – YAY!! I am reading YA novel: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. I am pulled into her fantasy world. 

23:00 or earlier if I start to nod – sleep. 

As my day is filled with words and sentences, I go to sleep dreaming of the different stories and books that occupy my psyche. It’s a great feeling, I’ll be honest. As I am working on world building and characterisation right now, I wake to a character voice in my head. I let that character speak to me in the liminal space between slumber and wakefulness. This morning, it was the Lee household cook, one of the characters in my YA. Her voice is distinct, I feel her presence, I take refuge in her wisdom but I am suspicious of her. She speaks to me in the “I” and nudges me to change my viewpoint of her story from the 3rd. 

Because I work on several projects concurrently, I have to really prioritise where I want to dedicate my writing energy. I keep a notebook of with a to-do list of all my projects and tick them off as I go through the items daily. Today, I worked mostly on the blogging and YA WIP. 

As it’s all in a day’s work, I always reward myself with a glass of something luscious like a good Prosecco on Fridays. Maybe one day, I can have champagne instead. But hey-ho, it’s one day in the life of a professional writer. 

TGIF!!