Where to Start – How About the End…?

So, what would the end of the world look like?

We live in crazy times (haven’t we always!). Wars rumbling on in the background of the West’s consciousness (Yemen), or wars that the world looks at but does nothing about (Syria), politicians who promote division to bolster and their own egos, gun crime, knife attacks, cars used as weapons…I could go on. The end of the world could come in many forms, but societal breakdown and the end of civilisation is probably more likely than being struck by a giant meteorite (I hope I’m not tempting fate there!). Amongst all this doom and gloom it is important to remember that for the majority of people living on this planet, life is much better than that.

Our perception of the state of the world is seriously eroded largely by negative press – camera crews and news reporters try to find the most appalling incidents to make the public tune in. That is essentially their job. Of course, it’s human nature to seek out bad news, but it’s important to remember that positive things are happening all the time that are never reported.

Just like the news reports, fiction often visits the darker side of the human condition (or not-so-human, depending on your genre). It is essential for the development of a plot for ‘something’ to happen. That ‘something’, or ‘trigger’, is necessary for events to take place and a story to unfold, and rarely is it something pleasant.

To write a story it can be quite difficult to actually begin, or ‘put pen to paper’ as the cliche goes. Sometimes it can be good to start with a dramatic event to draw people in, or at least a line or two to pique their interest or create bemusement. Something, anything to grab the reader and make them want to read on.

Another way to start is to imagine the ‘trigger’ event and work backwards. Think about what would lead up to the event taking place, or how and why the main character is involved or affected by it.

This is all well and good, but how to come up with the ‘trigger’ in the first place? Some people use random words, or suggested opening lines, or they look in the newspapers and magazines then extrapolate their own variations on the stories they read. Another way is to find an arresting image and to create a story that leads up to, or runs away from, what is pictured. That’s where this post comes in – hopefully.

The end of the world is a pretty dramatic event and has been illustrated numerous times throughout history – in art, literature and on film. The images below are interesting because they fuse photography and painting to create believable scenes (they digitally fuse the two media to create impossible ‘photos’). Created by Michal Karcz (an artist form Warsaw, Poland), his images appear to encompass post-apocalyptic, alien or parallel worlds and alternative futures/pasts. They could be a good starting point for a story/

What would you write inspired by these pictures? Or what do you use as a trigger for your stories?

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I originally discovered these images a few years ago on the designboom website at this address.

Bill Callahan at The Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 February 2014

Having completely fallen in love with the brilliance of Apocalypse (see my review here), I was a little disappointed by Dream River, Bill Callahan’s more recent album.  It seemed a little too amorphous, the loose arrangements a little too free and unstructured.  It took a couple of listens before I was comfortable with its songs, but by this time I had long ago booked to see him live in London – not that it put me off the event at all.

Royal Festival HallThis was my first visit to The Royal Festival Hall – the only remaining structure from the 1951 Festival of Britain, which rejuvenated the bombed-out south bank of the Thames (and now an icon if British architecture and design).

As usual to a music event, I took a couple of ear-plugs (just in case), but the sound was ideal, not too loud and perfectly balanced – it was lovely to be able to hear the music completely un-muffled.

Before the main event there was a half-hour set by Alisdair Roberts, a Scottish folk singer-songwriter – it was ok, but all the songs were quite similar and of the same mood throughout.

What is wonderful about Callahan’s words and music is the way they evoke a whole landscape, a mood, state of mind and place.  It feels like the aural equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting, perfectly formed worlds that extend way beyond the edge of the canvas.  At first it was fascinating to hear how this world was constructed with such a simple arrangement of two guitars, bass guitar and a minimal drum set, but once you recognized the tricks and motifs which formed the music and lyrics, the mystery of it became a little less mysterious.  What was particularly disappointing was the too frequent moments of self-indulgence.

Bill CallahanI have no problem with self-indulgence in music – a little here and there is fine, and with a genre like Prog. Rock it’s positively called for in excess.  What is not called for is repeated and extended interludes of noise within the style of music that Bill Callahan creates.  Although it does surface briefly and occasionally (and effectively) within songs on the albums, the live feedback-noodling was over-done and detracted from the delicacy of the songs.

He ended by mentioning that he’d visited the Tate Modern that afternoon and riffed off the word Tate to the rhythm at the end of the last song.  It didn’t really work very well (although some people were amused – there’s always some!) and it was a disappointingly self-indulgent way end to the evening’s performance.

Do not take from this review that it was not a good performance (but I can understand it if you do!) – the band had a fantastic sound and played a wide selection of songs from the last two albums and beyond, and I was more than satisfied in that respect, but at the same time it did not wow me as it really should have done.

Apocalypse by Bill Callahan

Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native America
America!
Well everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention
America! America!

I have been on the verge of buying this album for a good number of months – I came across it while trying to find contemporary singer/songwriters that don’t fall into the over-produced pop category.  I finally bought it about two weeks ago and have listened to little else since.

Bill Callahan’s voice is deep and resonant, and even when the words are virtually spoken they have a rich lyricism.  Although the album is titled Apocalypse, it probably should have been called America.  The sparse instrumentation has the feel of the “wild, wild country” (as he puts it) or the wide open prairie, yet like the quote above, it is not afraid to be critical of the country it longs for.

I haven’t analysed the songs yet and I don’t really want to, but for me the stand-outs are ‘Drover‘, ‘Baby’s Breath‘ with it’s almost spoken vocal introduction, ‘Riding For The Feeling‘ which, when those words are sung, is achingly beautiful, and ‘America!‘.  All the other songs have their moments which are gradually seeping into my appreciation – a great album indeed.

Apocalypse by Bill Callahan