“Where do you get your ideas from?”
It’s the classic question you nearly always get asked, as a writer, and there are always the classic answers to give back: something you’ve experienced, read about, observed; a place, a person, an overheard conversation, a newspaper report, a dream, an emotion, a picture, a fairy tale, a poem. These are my usual kinds of triggers, some happened on by chance, others more deliberately sought. But there are other kinds of triggers: objects, things that by their very presence seem to fire off the story-nerve. And they can be the most exciting triggers of all. That’s certainly been the case for me very recently.
I’m back in Europe at the moment and the other week, in London, on my way to the British Museum, I took a wrong (or right!) turn and came across an antique shop. In the window were trays of old coins, small figures, and old jewelry—very old jewelry, for as soon became clear, this was a shop specialising in objects from the ancient world, in particular Greece, Rome and Egypt. Some of the things were very expensive indeed, but a few were in the affordable range, so on a whim, I decided to go in and have a closer look. And there was the ring.
It is an Ancient Roman bronze ring, small and fairly plain, except for one unexpected feature, for it features a built-in key shank. Once, sometime in the 1st–3rd century AD, a Roman wore it on his or her (most likely her, given the size) finger, making sure it wasn’t lost. As soon as I saw that ring, I got a tingle, a prickle of story-nerve, and instantly a host of questions came to my mind. Questions, but also the beginnings of answers.
 What lock did the key-ring open? The lock of a box. What kind of box? Small, most likely, as the key is not large. Not a box then containing a large hoard of coins like the one I was to see later in the British Museum. So a small box, but containing what? Jewelry? Important papers? Something else?
As I walked away with my purchase, every step of the way was beginning to bring slowly into focus the barest sketch of a character, the seed of a story. A Romano-Gaulish girl living in Britain, a box entrusted to her, a journey. The key-ring was literally unlocking a story. But what was strange too was that this unexpected find was not only doing that; it was finally bringing to the surface an idea that had been misting at the back of my mind for years and that I had made one or two stabs at, without real success: a novel based around my own interest in Roman times. It had never found a real form though because I’d never, till then, found the right trigger, and all my readings of Roman history didn’t help with that at all.
Over the days and weeks that have followed, that key-ring has taken me to Roman and British forts and towns from London to North Wales and the Isle of Anglesey, characters have come into sharper and sharper focus, and my main character Silvia’s quest has become ever more defined. Like a mosaic, the picture is growing, with bits and pieces picked up here and there. In a museum in Chester, I saw a travelling oculist’s stamp and knew at once that’s how Silvia would be able to journey across the country; in the ruins of Isca, now known as Caerleon, in Wales, I looked across the landscape and knew that’s where her retired-centurion uncle would be living with his wife; in a fragment of Samian pottery signed by a Southern Gaulish potter, I saw Silvia’s mother’s family tree; in the remains of an Ancient British village nestled in a beautiful secluded spot, I saw the place where her reluctant British companion comes from. I haven’t actually written anything down yet, but the world of the story is growing day by day, and I know this is not only one that will work, but that the key-ring might well unlock more than one story-box. Watch this space!
Over to you. Have objects acted as keys to your own stories?