The Years That Followed: Calista
Something about Calista, the main character in The Years That Followed.
One question that writers get asked all the time is:
Where do you get your ideas from?
It’s a very reasonable question, given the apparently inexhaustible supply of stories that writers seem to draw on. But it’s also something that is very difficult to answer.
Firstly, because such a question assumes that an idea arrives fully-formed in the writer’s head and that all we have to do is follow where it leads. And secondly, because a question such as this also assumes that we writers know where our ideas come from in the first place.
A sense of recognition
We may, on occasion, have a suspicion when the seed of a particular story was planted – perhaps many years before its germination.
It might have been waiting in the dark for years, driving its roots deeper and deeper underground in one of the many unconscious processes that form the activity knows as writing.
When the tiny green shoot eventually makes its appearance above ground, sparking the creative imagination into life, then the writer takes notice. Its arrival is often something of a surprise. Occasionally, we have a sense of recognition: So that’s what’s been bubbling away below the surface for all these years.
Stories choose their writers
We give it a cautious welcome, nurturing and tending it until it grows into something that may, with a bit of luck and a lot of dedication, find itself transformed into a story. In this way, stories choose their writers: not the other way around.
But this transformation of idea into story only happens during the course of the writing: the seed and the writer feed off each other, as it were, and the story grows and develops as we engage with it, writing and rewriting, drafting and redrafting it.
From the myth to The Years That Followed
I knew for some time that I wanted to write an ancient tale with a modern twist: and that was my starting-point for The Years That Followed.
Sex, violence, revenge, duplicity…
Take the myth of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, place the main characters in an up-to-date setting, stir in the heady ingredients of sex and violence and revenge and duplicity and see what happens.
I always knew who Calista was: a daughter, a young wife, a mother, a victim.
During the writing process, though, what became a much more interesting question for me was ‘Where do my characters come from?’
Primarily from the imagination, of course – where else? – but also from observation, from empathy and, from time to time, from a little bit of the writer’s own lived experience. All writing is an act of imaginative empathy. How would this young woman feel if this terrible thing happened to her? How would I feel if this terrible thing happened to me?
Writers need to walk around in the shoes of their characters. We need to climb inside their skin. We need to inhabit their lives. Sometimes, in the process, our fictional characters become more real than the real flesh and blood people that we live with.
As we take over the lives of the characters we are creating, they, too, colonise us: it’s a powerful, sometimes uncomfortable, symbiotic relationship.
I knew what Calista’s ‘story’ was.
But I had to breathe life into her so that she could follow that trajectory.
Sometimes, like a willful child, she strayed away from the path, taking me with her on the always interesting adventure that begins with the question ‘What if?’
In The Years That Followed, Calista’s fate mirrors that of the much-wronged Clytemnestra of Greek tragedy.
But she made that ancient story her own, drawing this writer along with her on a journey that was lengthy, sometimes exhausting and always full of surprises.