Reasons to be grateful: A young boy and an old train set

A few weekends ago I took my son on the train to visit my parents in the UK country side. During our time there we had an uncharacteristically hot day. We all have pale skin and are prone to burning, and on top of that I tend to get quite light headed when it’s too hot so I’m not a huge fan of the hot weather.

My parents have a nice garden that features a couple of terraced patios, and the highest one is sheltered by the shade of a graceful old apple tree. We decided not to go anywhere in the heat but instead potter around at home. My son is still a toddler and doesn’t need elaborate entertainment any way, he can spend twenty minutes examining a CD (my parents still have a lot of those).

After my son took his afternoon nap he was pottering about in the garden when my dad emerged from their cellar holding a mysterious plastic box. He put it on the table under the apple tree and invited my son to sit at the table with him. Once my son was settled in his chair my dad began pulling out pieces of track and old electric locomotive trains for my son to look at and hold.

My son really loves trains, and has a wooden train set at home that slots together like a jigsaw made by BRIO (this is one of the sets he has, they are compatible with other more elaborate sets, affilliate link so if you chose to buy this set using this link I would get a small commission), but the set my dad showed him was more elaborate, delicate and involved an electric track. It also had a number of detailed steam trains, which my son loved zooming up and down the table on a piece of track my dad put together for him.

It’s a very old train set, part of it belongs to a set that my father’s father gave him when he was a child, and part of it my dad bought for a set at some time or other (he used to be a set designer for TV programmes), so we didn’t think it would actually work. However, after a little detective work and some DW-40, my dad persuaded one of the units to race around the track. It was quite an exciting moment.

Generally I would have thought my son a little too excitable to play with something with such a delicate set up, but he controlled himself very well if it meant spending the afternoon playing with grampy’s train set in the shade. At times he sat and chatted with my mum about all the trains and what they were, even though he doesn’t really understand that much, which was enchanting to watch.

As I’ve said else where, we needed fertility treatment to have our son, and frankly there were times when I didn’t think we would get moments like these. I feel intensely lucky to have spent that warm afternoon in the garden watching my son play with his grandparents and an old train set under the apple tree.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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Creative Prompts: Treasure

I spied these beads the other morning while walking my son to the nursery. It was a bright hot day and sunshine glinting off the bright blue caught my eye. The beads were nestled in a collection of old leaves on the edge of a playground, and they seemed to me to be the kind of find I would have been very happy with as a child, making me think of treasure.

Some of the great stories and movies that I liked as a child started off as a hunt for treasure, and I still have a particular fondness for the Goonies. Most of the Indiana Jone’s stories involved the pursuit of some kind of treasure, for a range of different reasons. I think the pursuit of treasure can be a great device to use in a story, as it can reveal many facets of a character or a group of characters personalities.

What might a good treasure be?

Why does a character need or want it?

Greed?

Money worries?

It’s significance as an occult object?

I’m not a huge fan of creative exercises, so it’s not my habit to tell people what to do with these prompts. There are lots of options – a scene, some flash fiction, a short story, an idea for a short film or a physical piece of art. If you do have a go with this one and would like to drop the result in the comments please do so. I would be very interested to see what people make of these so please do link to blog posts or comment below.

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page.

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Are Fictional Stories Like a Computer Simulation For Our Emotions?

Have you ever spent hours working on a story, only to read it back and find it feels like a formulaic series of events that happen to your characters, who don’t even seem to care that much, bolted together with some dialogue? Have you read a story with almost the same series of events, told a little differently, and find it so deeply moving that it stays with you for weeks afterwards? As writers we are aware that we are writing something that feels flat and fails to push any emotional buttons, but sometimes we struggle to understand why that is.

There is some insights from psychology that can help us with that: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation Theory by Keith Oatley. This was described in his paper ‘Why fiction might be twice as true as fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation.’ This peer reviewed paper was published in the academic journal Review of General Psychology in 1999, and can be accessed for free here. It is also the source I have used to write this article.

Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation

The core idea of this theory was that fictional stories and poetry, particularly the kind of stories that get badged under the term ‘literature’, could provide readers with a kind of virtual simulation through which to explore their emotions. This happens when a reader becomes wrapped up in the emotions of the characters as they make the journey that their particular story takes them on.

Fiction as a simulation

In his explanation of the first core element of his theory, that people may experience a story world like a computer simulation, he suggests that fictional stories do not try to create a perfect imitation of life. Instead, writers create a convincing simulation by describing scenes and events in a way that include the necessary contextual information about the goals and motivations of a character, and details about the setting and how those events occur.

This extra information allows the reader to construct a mental picture of a characters interaction with their story environment and with other characters within it. In doing so they may understand how actions taken may lead to consequences, and the emotional fall out that follows.

In his work he described two forms of information that the brain uses to create a simulation of a fictional world:

  • The event structure — the series of events that happens in a story.
  • The discourse structure — which I interpret as the creative and artistic decisions that a writer or artist makes which tell the reader how those events will unfold.

I like to think of this as a good way of understanding how, while they say there are no new ideas under the sun, we still encounter stories that feel new because of the way the particular writer or artist decides to tell them.

Fictional simulations as an emotional laboratory

In the second core aspect of his theory, he suggests that the simulations fictional stories provide us are so involving that they may allow readers to experience some form of personal truth, that may lead to personal insight.

This is because readers are likely to flesh out a story world with material from their own memories and experiences, and so build a personalised version of whatever story is put in front of them.

His main argument, which he describes in far more detail with than I have space for here, is that fictional worlds provide a kind of emotional laboratory in which people can experience emotional responses to a range of simulated events. Through that process they may experience both expected and unexpected emotional responses to things, and may come to understand themselves, and other people, better.

He suggests that there are three different ways in which stories evoke emotions in readers:

  1. Identification — Where the reader identifies with the protagonist of the story, takes on their goals and effectively feels what the character would feel as if the emotions were the readers own.
  2. Sympathy — Where the reader doesn’t necessarily identify with the character, but is none the less moved by their journey as it is described in the story.
  3. Memory — Provoking the reader to recall their own emotional memories in response to events occurring in the story.

Why does this matter to writers?

At the beginning of this piece I asked why some stories were convincing on an emotional level, while others were not. What this theory does is direct us to pay attention to how things happen to our protagonists, and how they respond to those things while we are crafting our stories. Do events happening to the character feel consistent with the story world? Does the character have reactions to those events that feel authentic to them?

I know that personally, if I feel that a character has done something or said something simply to service the plot (or event structure), that seems a bit silly or out of character, I tend to put books down or disengage from a film or TV series. For me it doesn’t matter what genre this is happening in, it can be some deep fantasy or complicated science fiction, but if the characterisation feels insincere I’ll often switch off (if this rings a bell for you, you may also be interested in the idea of false notes, mentioned in this article).

This idea has been influential in the way I try to write now. I try to ensure that my characters, made up as they are, have some kind of emotional truth within my stories. Sometimes I miss this a bit on my first pass and need to give a story a bit of time to ‘rest’ so that I can come back to a story and really decide if I’ve made the right aesthetic decision, but I think they are better for it.

Final thoughts

Sometimes, on a bad day as a writer, it’s easy to think ‘I’m just making stuff up, it’s not like I’m doing anything useful’. What this theory suggests to us is that good writing is important, perhaps essential, to how readers may view and understand other people, and that may influence their relationships with other people in the real world.

Exciting stuff, huh?

A note on the source text:

The way this theory is described in the original paper is more complicated, and has many more implications than I have described here. On top of that, this paper was published more than twenty years ago, since then a lot more work has been done on this idea. I do plan going to circle back to these themes at a later date, but if you are interested in psychology, storytelling, reading and writing I suggest you may want to take a bit of time to read the whole thing here.

This article was first published on Medium, where I regularly post content from this blog.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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Creative Prompt: Rope Walk

I took this photograph in a small town in the Cotswolds in the UK. The sign sits high up on a wall that lines one side of a small road that provides an escape from the main high street. The entrance is enclosed on both sides and above by squat old buildings made from Cotswold stone, and the alleyway winds away from the shops through a mysterious series of corridors until you find yourself at the back of the town in the car park.

In the UK many of the street names in old towns and villages had quite literal names. There are a lot of Station Roads that now, or used to, lead to train stations. When I saw this sign I could not imagine how it got it’s name and some google adventures later I still do not know.

The local area used to be famous for it’s cloth trade, and there were many woollen mills in the district from as far back as the thirteenth century. I couldn’t find confirmation that this particular Rope Walk relates to that activity, although the connection seems sensible.

How do you think Rope Walk got its name?

What kind of mysterious things may have happened there?

I’m not a huge fan of creative exercises, so it’s not my habit to tell people what to do with these prompts. There are lots of options – a scene, some flash fiction, a short story, an idea for a short film or a physical piece of art. If you do have a go with this one and would like to drop the result in the comments please do so. I would be very interested to see what people make of these so please do link to blog posts or comment below.

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page.

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Reasons to be Grateful: Unexpected quiet moments with my son

I made a bit of a mistake this morning, and managed to get the whole household up an hour earlier than we needed to. I looked over at the clock on the other side of the bed and mistook a 5 for a 6.

My son was still asleep when I carried him downstairs and settled him on the sofa, and I didn’t wake him as I thought we still had a few minutes to spare. In the kitchen where I made some tea and warmed him a little milk the clock on the cooker alerted me to the fact that I was an hour early, and my partner grumbled a little before heading back to bed.

By the time I had returned to the living room my son was beginning to stir and it was too late to get us all back under the duvet. He asked to watch one of his favorite programmes. It’s a program in which an animated gecko teaches toddlers about emergency service vehicles.

My son and are sitting quietly together on the sofa as I type this, and he occasionally points out details of the program to me that capture his imagination. He’s still too sleepy to be rushing around yet, and instead rests his bare feet against my arm and clutches his comforter. The soles of his feet are warm and soft.

It would probably have been good for us all to get the extra hour of sleep, but there is a little magic to these early mornings with him when he’s not quite ready to involve himself in mischief yet, and we can just enjoy a little time together. So I am oddly grateful today that I got us up an hour earlier than I needed to.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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Creative Prompt: There She Is

A few weeks ago I left my house to pop to the shop and found that someone had dropped a pack of playing cards all over the pavement down our road. I stopped to take a few photos of some of the cards where they lay, as I always think there’s something a bit mysterious about a solitary playing card, maybe because they have been used in so many murder mystery and super hero films.

As I was doing this I realised that there was a particular card that I wanted to find, and then set about looking for the queen of hearts. I eventually found her loitering by the wheel of a parked car in the middle of the road.

This card has a dual meaning for me in that it reminds me both of the irrational and powerful Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (this is an affiliate link – if you buy this book using this link I’ll be sent a few pence as a referral fee), and of the more generic archetype of the beloved queen or princess in many fairy tales.

I’m particularly drawn to the idea of a character who may be able combine the two different forms of representation, the caring and kind exterior, that may be disrupted at times by actions and decisions that carry power, and that may be unpredictable and make little sense.

Can you imagine such a person?

Who would they be and where may you encounter them in a fictional world?

I’m not a huge fan of creative exercises, so it’s not my habit to tell people what to do with these prompts. There are lots of options – a scene, some flash fiction, a short story, an idea for a short film or a physical piece of art. If you do have a go with this one and would like to drop the result in the comments please do so. I would be very interested to see what people make of these so please do link to blog posts or comment below.

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page.

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Reasons to be grateful: A sense of peace watching the bees

Like a lot of people I’ve been alarmed by the reports of the steep decline in biodiversity. When we moved into our current house there were some roses in pots, and a few wild flowers in the garden, but the majority of the space was taken up with lawn, and even the grass all looked like it was all the same variety. While we couldn’t fix the global biodiversity crisis, we could try to help in our little corner of London.

Over the last couple of years my partner and I have put quite a lot of work into increasing the diversity of plant and animal life in the garden, by planting new flowering plants, growing fruit and vegetables, and letting those wild flowers that were there before roam a little more freely.

We’ve managed to establish a couple of sage plants which put on an explosive display of purple flowers in late spring, and we also now have some chunky clusters of chives, that produce clumps of violet pompoms. Both of these plants are really attractive to the bees. Now we can sit and watch the local honey bees roam across these flowers collecting nectar, their little legs heavy with pollen.

As I write this we’ve had a stressful couple of weeks, with both my son and my lovely little cat being poorly, along with the day to day stresses that come with work and the rising cost of living. I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past, and it is these times where it is more important to do little things for our mental health. Most days I find a moment to go out into the garden to watch the busy activity of the bees. These are moments that I can really sink into and feel a little contentment in the present.

The flowers on both plants are dying back now, but there are others just geering up to take their place. My son loves to go outside and look for the ants and the ‘bumble bees’ too. It makes me grateful that we put the effort into trying to turn some patches of a tired looking lawn into an attractive place for the local insects.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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Creative Prompt: When shall we three meet again?

When I saw these three chairs sitting outside a house in the area where I live, they made me think of the line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “when shall we three meet again?” Three witches appear in the first act to deliver a prophesy to Macbeth, telling him that he will be the King of Scotland. This event is crucial in sending him off on his tragic way (for a full summary of the plot this website does a good job).

Mother, Maiden, Crone

The archetype of three women, often witches, with supernatural abilities (sometimes referred to as the Triple Goddess) has appeared in mythology throughout history, and across many different cultures. While they may mean slightly different things in different cultures, it is thought that these figures were meant to symbolically represent three different phases of life for women:

  • Youth and innocence in the Maiden
  • Fertility and care in the Mother
  • Wisdom and experience in the Crone

Often the appearance of the women in mythology was linked to aspects of nature such as the turning of the seasons or the phases of the moon(for more information on this wikipedia has a longer and more detailed entry here).

I’ve personally been a fan of books in which the figures of three witches take a more central role than they did in Macbeth, like the subversion of those stereotypes in Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters (this is an affiliate link – if you buy this book using this link I’ll be sent a few pence as a referral fee), or the warmth of Mark Stay’s Witches of Woodville Series (full disclosure, I know Mark a little bit, but I think I would have found these books warm and lovely if I didn’t, also an affiliate link).

Back to my three chairs on the street

I actually walked past the chairs a couple of times before I had a quiet moment in which to take a photograph, and was lucky that they remained in place for so long. Perhaps they were waiting for me as two of them disappeared the next day. There is a sense of mystery around the arrangment of the chairs, as if only moments ago three people sat to discuss an urgent matter, before leaving to follow different paths.

What do you think they may have been discussing?

Where did those paths lead them?

I’m not a huge fan of creative exercises, so it’s not my habit to tell people what to do with these prompts. There are lots of options – a scene, some flash fiction, a short story, an idea for a short film or a physical piece of art. If you do have a go with this one and would like to drop the result in the comments please do so. I would be very interested to see what people make of these so please do link to blog posts or comment below.

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page.

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Creative Prompt: Time Waits For No Mouse

A few weeks ago my little family and I took a holiday by the seaside in the town of Worthing, East Sussex. While we were there I noticed quite a few little pieces of knitted art like this clock that we saw fixed to a lamp post. Most of them were fixed to various spots along the promenade at the sea front, which is a popular public space even when the air is cold, windy and flecked with rain.

I later found out that it was part of an art project called Time and Seasons by the local knitting group Make and Munch (for a nice article about the project read here). I really loved the quiet humour in these pieces, like the little mouse hanging on the pendulum.

It is inspiring to see people use slightly subversive artistic tactics in public spaces to prompt people to stop for a moment and maybe reflect on something important for a moment. Here the juxtaposition of the soft, ‘indoorsy’ feel of the knitting against the raw elements of the sea front caused me to stop and take a photograph, and to wonder what the piece was about.

Public spaces can often feel like they are corporate spaces, simply maintained and organised to sell people things that they probably don’t need. Art in these spaces can do the opposite, especially pieces that are as enigmatic as this one, they can invite people to spend time simply collectively looking and thinking and feeling. Sometimes they can induce a feeling of beloning, that these spaces may be ‘for us’ after all.

If you were able to reclaim a local public space with art, where would that be? What would the project look like?

I’m not a huge fan of creative exercises, so it’s not my habit to tell people what to do with these prompts. There are lots of options – a scene, some flash fiction, a short story, an idea for a short film or a physical piece of art. If you do have a go with this one and would like to drop the result in the comments please do so. I would be very interested to see what people make of these so please do link to blog posts or comment below.

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

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Creative Prompt: A Tribute to Mother Thames

When I saw this bike in the mud of the Thames I immediately thought of the references made to Mother and Father Thames in The Rivers of London series of books by Ben Aaronovitch (this is an affiliate link – if you buy this book using this link I’ll be sent a few pence as a referral fee). I’ve been a fan of the series for a long time and these books are definitely an influence on my own work.

I took the photo while out on a day trip with my family, so it was taken a little hastily. It’s also a little fuzzy because I was hanging over a wall a bit, looking down from quite a height while the tide was low, but I’m pleased enough with the monochrome feel of the snap.

The city of London marks a site of settlement that goes back until at least the Roman times, and in Pre-Christian times it was common for people to make votive offerings (Wikipedia has a nice entry on this here) to the local deities of the land and the water. It’s likely that the river will have received many, many offerings over the years for the local spirits from people seeking luck or protection, or giving thanks for a piece of good fortune. 

It makes me wonder, in a different time who may have made such a valuable offering and what did they want or need?

Would the local spirit have been enraged to receive the offer of a stolen bicycle, or entertained?

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

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