I suppose Brian Eno is best known for his contribution to music; and a lot of it is great music. I always think of him though for a particular piece of advice: Use your accidents. As a producer, Eno encouraged bands to moderate or even ignore their instinct to produce polished music, in favour of that with the vitality of accidental input.
How does this fit with writing?
When I was putting together the scenario for my new Conjuror Girl trilogy – a steampunk work set in an alternate late Victorian version of my home town of Shrewsbury – I thought everything would be steam, carriages and horse power. Then, reading one day a book about carbon-based fuel, I was struck by a reference to the fractionating column, used by chemists to separate different compounds existing in the same solution. Such a contraption I’d not seen since my school days. I looked up from the book, wondering if I could use the thing for Conjuror Girl, but I thought… nah. Too modern.
Then I reconsidered. The mental image persisted. Chemists did all sorts of things in the late nineteenth century, so was there really a reason to ignore this accidental image? I jotted the idea down, then was suddenly struck with another idea. The dark side of these novels comes in the form of the Reifiers, men with the ability to make real – reify – the contents of their minds. As it is put early on, they can make real their whims and fancies. But to do this they have to impose their minds upon the world, an act of deep selfishness. The consequence of Reification is a black fluid which, lore has it, is composed of pure selfishness; and even Reifiers dare not come into contact with this stuff.
Now I was getting to the kernel of the idea. What if this oily black liquid was composed of different fractions which could be separated in a fractionating column? What if there was a character who did this – a madcap scientist, a petit-Reifier in fact. Suddenly I had a whole new part of the plot, previously blank.
It’s accidents like this which make sub-creation such fun. I usually leave many of a novel’s details vague so that, when I’m writing in the white heat of composition, I can use my imagination for fuel.
And there was another accident which I took advantage of. When I was at school I did history before taking other O-levels, and the first thing we studied was the Danelaw. While talking about school teachers to a friend one day I suddenly remembered history lessons, and the naïve, poorly drawn map I did in my history book of the border between England and the Danelaw, which my teacher wrote poor next to in red pen. Thinking on this, I wondered if I could perpetuate that border and have part of Britain inhabited by Danes…
A final accident, then. When looking at a map of south-east England one time I noticed Sussex, Middlesex and Essex, and their origins in Saxon regions. There was also a Wessex of course. At once I asked myself: why no Nossex? Well, there were no north Saxons to leave such a name. I knew at once that I had to invent the region. So I did. My fictitious Shrewsbury is in Nossex.