One of the books on my A Level English Literature course back at school was Annie Proulx’s Postcards. I loved the book, and the terrible sympathy that was roused for Loyal by the end of the novel. Until this week, Postcards remained the only novel by Proulx that I had read. I had heard good things about The Shipping News, the story of the journalist Quoyle who returns to Newfoundland, the home of his ancestors, following the death of his wife. The ocean is almost a character in the novel, ranging from the quiet, “There’s the sea. Like a door opening and closing,” to the tumultuous waves of “green curlers.”
In her acknowledgements, Proulx credits The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley as an inspiration for her novel. This encouraged me to think about beginnings. How to start a story? The protagonist of her novel, “Quoyle,” is taken from The Ashley Book of Knots as a name for a coil of rope. The example given is that of a “Flemish Flake,” which is a “spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on, if necessary.” This encapsulates Quoyle’s character at the beginning of the novel, dominated by his unfaithful, nymphomaniac wife. Each chapter begins with a quote from The Ashley Book of Knots, helping to develop and enrich the plot.
Taking inspiration from this, I found a book called The Penny Cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. I chose a page at random, which told of the tradition usage of dried kingfishers. This was something I had never heard of, and I have used it as a starting point for a poem and a short story. I think this is an interesting writing exercise because it forces you to move away from ways in which you typically start putting pen to paper. I’ve also found that it’s been a good prompt to fit in some writing in between dissertation deadlines this week!