Questions every writer is familiar with: “Where did you get the idea?” or “How did you decide what to write about?”
How did Denis Johnson decide to make a character obsessed with Elvis Presley’s dead twin in his story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist”? What interested Helen Humphreys enough to write forty vignettes based on times the Thames froze over?
How a story got started can be a difficult thing pinpoint—stories don’t always begin when the writing or research starts, and they rarely follow a flight plan. For me, veering away from an outline on a project is a sign there’s life in it.
When I started on “Da Capo al Fine” (a story in That Tiny Life) I only knew that I was interested in writing something that included harpsichords and fortepianos. More specifically, I wanted to write about the time period in the 1700s when harpsichords lost public favour to fortepianos.
If you don’t know the difference between the two, they’re both keyboard instruments. Harpsichords use quills to pluck strings, and fortepianos—like modern pianos—have hammers that hit the string.
To grow the interest—at that point it was too vague to call an idea—I made a trip to the University of Victoria library and signed out all the books I could on manufacturers during the time period, looking up materials and famous builders and musicians. I ended up finding two things that became the story.
The first: there was a very cold winter in the 1790s after Napoleon came to power in France. The Paris Conservatory, lacking fuel and thinking the instruments outdated, dismantled and burned most of its harpsichords for heat.
The second thing I found was a footnote in a book on harpsichord manufacturing that claimed a German harpsichord builder living in France, friends with the executioner of France, constructed the guillotine used in the French Revolution.
Finding a way to connect or use those facts involved all sorts of other work, and the story went its own way, with the fortepiano falling into the background.
How does a story start? Without worrying about the story. Follow a question and see where it leads.
And if you're curious about harpsichords, here's Domenico Scarlatti Essercizii per Gravicembalo k 27 performed by Benjamin Åberg on a harpsichord built by Andreas Kilström in 2014.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Erin Frances Fisher (MFA UVic, AVCM pedagogy/performance) is a writer and musician in Victoria, BC. Her short story collection THAT TINY LIFE was published by House of Anansi Press, March 2018, was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize at the 2019 BC Book Prizes, and runner-up for the 2018 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Her stories have appeared in Granta, The Malahat Review, PRISM international, Riddle Fence, and Little Fiction. She is the 2014 RBC Writer’s Trust Bronwen Wallace Emerging Writers recipient. Erin teaches piano at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and is a sometimes sessional writing instructor at the University of Victoria.