Squirrels and Magpies


Are you a hoarder or an adapter?

Many months ago, as I left for work on a particularly cold day, I happened to glance up at our neighbour’s roof. There’d been a heavy frost during the night and it looked as though the tiles had been sprinkled with sugar. I mused about that impression during my journey, and eventually scribbled a few words in my notebook. Today, a long time since I'd first jotted it down, I used the description in my new book, where I wanted to describe a cold morning: There’d been a frost during the night and the roofs had crystalised, tiny sugar-like flakes nestling in the crevices. For the purposes of the novel, rural West Sussex had been transplanted to 1930’s Prague. Whether the description will make it to the final cut is another matter - everything seems to be very fluid at the moment - but the point is that many writers are squirrels, hoarding words and ideas to plunder their stock when the time is right. That’s why notebooks are so essential.

I feel less comfortable to confessing to being a magpie. Magpies steal! But so do all writers. I don’t mean plagiarism – I’m dead against that. But we all notice particularly elegant or memorable turns of phrase and adapt them in our own writing. Eventually so many people do this, they become clichés. If writers weren’t magpies there’d be no clichés!

Like most writers, I’m an avid reader. I particularly read contemporary novels and I’ve started to notice a fashion for certain words or phrases: ‘Tug’ (as a verb) is very 'in', so is the noun ‘fug’ (although the rhyme isn’t deliberate!), so too ‘spool’, ‘slip’, and ‘pool’ (all verbs). Also 'rush' (noun), tangle/jumble (both nouns). None of these words is copyrighted. As long as we use them in different contexts and for different purposes, it’s fine to be a magpie. They keep our work fresh and current, provided the words haven’t yet become clichés.

So are you a magpie or a squirrel? – I think I’m both!