My Story Mill


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Paula’s Post #79 – The Power of Story

Dateline: Copenhagen

This is my fourth and last 5writers post from Europe. I’ve been on the road for almost a month now on a journey that has taken us from the misty peaks of the Isle of Skye to the low, flat countries of the Baltic Sea. Perhaps no surprise to our 5writers followers, I’m composing this post in the departure lounge of yet another airport. This time, I’m at Copenhagen International Airport (CFH), a beautiful modern hub not far from the city centre.

The last month has given me so much opportunity to reflect on the power of story.  A few weeks earlier, my own personal journey (and the research for my novel-in-progress) took me to the depopulated Islands of northern Scotland. Here, the bitter deprivations of the “Highland Clearances” and the ravages left in the wake of the potato famine decimated the crofter families and robbed them of their traditional  livelihoods of small tract farming, kelping and fishing. That is my family’s story, or at least part of it.

But  on this trip I’ve discovered I’m not the only one tracing my family history. A few weeks later, upon boarding our cruise ship, we discovered many of our fellow passengers were embarking on their own personal pilgrimages, a journey to the lands that their parents and grandparents left behind. Their stories, like my family’s,  time-worn sagas of heartbreak and perseverance, hope and despair. As I listened to their powerful and oftentimes tragic family histories, I found myself yearning for a pen. Hoping to make a few notes to capture some of these tales of incredible fortitude and resilience.

For many of our fellow passengers on board our Baltic cruise,  their family story started (or ended) in the war ravaged states of the Eastern Baltic: particularly Russia, Lithuania and Latvia, where the rough cobblestone streets of the towns and villages are forever stained, at least metaphorically, with the bloody struggles for survival, with generations of heartache and despair.

During the second world war, the Baltic States, sandwiched between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, by fate of both geography and history, endured some of the most horrific events of the war, (though  not all suffered equally). Some, like the Finns, resisted Soviet occupation, just as the Norwegians resisted Nazi  occupation. Others, like Sweden and Denmark realized that their armies were no match for the onslaught of German military might and signed neutrality agreements at the start of the war, leaving their citizens living in a kind of ‘limbo’ for the duration. Others, like Latvia suffered through multiple brutal occupations, first the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians yet again.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga, Latvia stands as testament to one of the saddest chapters in mankind’s history. Established as an independent country after the first world war, Latvia’s hopes  for the young nation were brutally crushed by Stalin, who carried out mass deportations when the Soviets occupied Riga at the start of World War II.

Stalin’s pact with Hitler gave the Red Army free rein in the eastern Baltic states, with the result that thousands of Latvians were sent to Gulags in the far-flung corners of the USSR, primarily in the mines and forests of the north., There, they were utilized as slave labor, toiling under extreme deprivations. During this period, Latvian farms were also collectivized and the landowners dispossessed, with women and children separated from the men: the former sent to underpopulated Siberia, the latter to the aforementioned Gulags.

Little wonder the remaining citizens of Riga looked to Germany as ‘liberators’ when the tides of war turned and Germany declared war on the Soviet Union. But yet again, hope turned to despair as within months, the Nazis  occupiers carried out mass executions of Jewish population of Latvia including the infamous Rumbula Massacre, where on two non-consecutive days, November 30 and December 8th, 1941, over 25,000 Jewish citizens of Riga were executed in or on the way to Rumbula forest, just outside Riga.

Today, Riga is one of the fasting growing regions of Russia. marked not only by a solemn remembrance of times past but also with an incredible optimism for the future. As I walked through the cobblestone streets, I was struck by how quickly the ‘world turns’. How the bloody streets of war-torn Riga have, in just a few generations, transformed into a tourist mecca characterized by bustling cafes ubiquitous American fast food joints and even young lads peddling pedicabs.

But it is the power of story that helps us to remember the ravages of the past, no matter how transformed the present seems, how optimistic the future appears.

We disembarked from our cruise in Copenhagen, a vibrant, progressive city with few cars and many bicycles. Once again, I was struck by how much inspiration one can find by just walking through a city’s streets. You don’t need to travel to a far-flung destination for this to hold true, similar sources of inspiration are found in every town and city of the world, from Vancouver to Tokyo. In Copenhagen, where outdoor cafes abound, we had abundant opportunity to just sit and watch the world go by as tourists and natives alike bustled about their business (or pleasure, as the case may be). Observing couples holding hands, parents herding toddlers, gypsy musicians hustling tips and lovers squabbling over directions (okay, in truth sometimes it was actually my husband and I doing the squabbling) I felt a hundred story ideas burble through my subconscious. How easy to imagine a hidden motive behind a strangers act of kindness, or a loved ones mysterious, undisclosed secrets, past and present.

At one point, my husband wandered off in to a private courtyard and ‘disappeared’. Only for a minute, mind.

When we reunited a few minutes later, he told me he was staring with admiration at the garden in a hidden courtyard, when a women invited him in to take a photograph. Of course, a couple of dozen yards ahead, I had no idea where he’d gone. One minute he was there, the next ‘poof’ he vanished. And then another dozen storylines popped onto my head, all clamouring for space in chapter one of an espionage novel about the new cold war, the mysterious disappearance of a woman’s husband.

Dateline: (Greenland)

At least I think we’re over Greenland – or at least some reasonable facsimile where one can see craggy blue, glacial peaks and what seems like an awful lot of icebergs breaking off and floating about in the North Atlantic. I don’t know about you, but I think those global warming people may be on to something. Something big.

In any event we survived the short flight from Copenhagen to Heathrow, London. We even survived Heathrow, where, with the recent developments in Syria, Iraq and Israel, and concerns over air travel, the airport is under a heightened security alert. More fodder for the story mill, with even the most seemingly innocuous of travellers a suspect. At least in the writer’s mind.

This writer’s mind is overwhelmed with stories. A fantastic jumble of images and ideas, inspiration and settings, which one day I hope will materialize again when I’m ‘stuck’ and looking for some story ideas.

My imagined stories inspired by history and people of  the countries we visited were not my only companions on this journey. As a young girl, I discovered the experience of travel was enriched by reading a novel set in the region one was visiting. In this manner I discovered the espionage novels of Scottish-American author Helen MacInnis and American thriller writer, Robert Ludlum. If you’re not familiar with MacInnis’ work, you may want to take a look at her obituary from the New York Times.

This trip, I downloaded Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace,  the first book in a two book series chronicling the life of intriguing Catharine the Great, Monarch of Russia, a fascinating accompaniment to a visit to present day St. Petersberg and to the many palaces Catherine occupied during her reign.

So many books, so little time. Right now though, my suitcase is tipping the ‘overweight’ scale with the giant hardcover ‘History of Skye’ that I purchased after our visit to Armadale Castle, the castle of Clan Donald, in Sleat, on the southern tip of Skye. I haven’t even cracked it open yet, but I have an eerie premonition that when I do, I’m going to end up with even more story ideas.

Clan Donald

For me, there is no more effective influence than travel to help generate powerful story ideas. I’m a bit sad to be heading home from our travels, but know that the last few weeks have helped to create a wealth of new story ideas I’ll be able to bank and borrow from in the months and years to come.


Dateline: Gibsons Landing.

We’re back to reality. The hit and miss wi-fi at Heathrow prevented me from posting this update when I hoped. But back on track in the land of real wi-fi, with mountains of laundry waiting and many, many memories, safely tucked away in my ‘data bank’.

Do you have a favourite story idea that came to you when you were travelling? Or maybe you have a different ‘Story Mill’ for generating story ideas. We 5writers always like it when our followers share their inspiration for great story ideas.


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