Big Stories vs. Big Settings

There’s nothing quite like peering out of an aircraft window to clear your mind. In daylight hours you are likely to be treated to an ever-changing view, featuring any combination of clouds, sun, mountain tops beaming with snow, deserts, lakes and foam-flecked oceans. Even in the darker hours you might be lucky to see stars twinkling just that bit closer, mirroring the constellation-like cities as they pass by below, (unless the cabin lights are on, in which case all you see is a ghostly reflection of yourself, which makes the whole clearing your mind thing a bit pointless).

You might think someone who flies for a living would have long ago lost interest in gazing out into the void; not a bit of it. I frequently steal a glimpse whilst placing something onto a tray table or chatting with a passenger. The wonderful sight of a glacier pouring from a mountain like cream from a jug is great therapy for coping with disgruntled customers, and looking beyond the cabin is always an effective way of putting my tiredness and jet lag into perspective.

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Even when I’m flying as a passenger I can’t help but look at the world passing below and the sky above; it’s a joy to be in that middle place, skimming clouds. I did just that last week on my way back from a Hogmanay spent in Scotland; the views were stunning. The sun was shining with as much strength as it could muster on a winter’s afternoon, painting the clouds with an ever-changing palette. How lucky, I thought, to be seeing all that, whilst below the clouds, a flood-wary population looked out of damp houses onto rain-soaked streets.

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My writer-devil, the one who sits on my shoulder with a three-pronged fork ready to poke me at any given opportunity, jumped into action and reminded me that a real writer would be compiling vivid descriptions of the skyscape; they would be waxing lyrical and composing metaphors. Proust would probably have filled half a volume in describing the features of the top of a single cumulus formation. For a minute or two I tried doing these things; I even thought up names for the colours I saw, trying to be as creative as some paint companies insist on being, (‘Oil Slick Shimmer’ or ‘Camel’s Wheeze’ anyone?)*

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Eventually I realised that I’d stopped seeing what was out there and was instead concentrating on how it might be useful to me in my writing; in short, I was losing sight of those views as quickly as they were changing. I sent the devil off on a tea break and began just looking again. I also took these photos, reasoning that I could use them at a later date for as much creative word-smithing as I liked, which went some way to placate my devil when he reappeared a few moments later.

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As we dipped into the billowing clouds before landing, I turned my attention to the other passengers. None of them, at least none of those within my field of vision, appeared to have been looking out as I had at the glorious views of the English sky. Some had their window blinds shut, faces flickering in the electronic glow of tablets; at least two were furiously filling in Sudoku grids; whilst another beat his earphoned head in time to a silent rhythm. I wasn’t disappointed that my fellow passengers seemed to be oblivious to the natural wonders flitting by outside; I’m not that arrogant. I find it interesting; but it’s not everyone’s thing. Rather, I suddenly wanted to know what they were thinking. Were they preoccupied with other, deeper thoughts? Was that boy, cocooned in his inner world of sound, trying to forget yet another oppressive family Christmas? Or was he perhaps reliving an unexpected New Year’s Eve kiss? Had one of the Sudoku players made a resolution to complete at least three puzzles a day, wary of a family history of early-onset dementia? Maybe the other had lost a lover in a plane crash and was desperately trying to occupy a wandering mind.

Before I knew it, I had written at least four character back stories in my head, (‘Where’s your notebook?’ asked my writer-devil, ‘In my bag, out of reach in the locker,’ I answered), and remembered why it is often as important to see what’s happening immediately around you, to look at what other people are doing, as it is to gaze out at the big picture. Yes, our setting was beautiful, and would add interest to a story, were I to write one; but given the chance, those characters in the plane could really thrust the story onwards to who knows where?

It’s for this reason that I am always happy to take a seat with my back to the window in a restaurant famed for its views: the real story is often being played out at the other tables or in the kitchen.

The hour or so spent on that flight taught me several valuable lessons:

One.  I can, and should, enjoy looking without my writer’s hat on sometimes.

Two. A setting can be stunningly beautiful, but don’t forget that guy two rows in front: now there’s a story.

Three. No cup of tea will ever come close to one I brew at home myself and in my own teapot.


I hope you found this post interesting or of some use. If not, I shan’t be offended, and at least you’ve had some pretty pictures to look at. But if they didn’t do anything for you….why not? Is there something on your mind? Something interesting you’d like to share with me?  I’ve got my notebook handy now and my writer’s hat firmly on.


* I made these up, but they were inspired by two actual colours produced by a fancy manufacturer of domestic paint: ‘Elephant’s Breath’ and ‘Mouse’s Back’ are both available from all good stockists. (‘Oil Slick Shimmer’ and ‘Camel’s Wheeze’ are not).

© flyingscribbler 2013

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