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Words: we tend to take them for granted. We have them around us all the time, when we are writing and when we are not, and often in situations that are trivial or banal. Sometimes they are wrongly used or badly spelt.

But words reflect all our history – the movement of peoples, wars and invasions, and the spread of ideas, the great advances like agriculture and technology. They reflect different cultures and views of the world, climate and landscape, occupations and ways of life. They are our mirror and our trace.

We know that some words have several meanings - one glance at the OED shows whole lists of definitions for some terms. And these are constantly changing. Words may acquire completely different meanings through time; a few even come to signify two opposite things at once – duck-billed platypus words.

Because of this richness in our language, our words may not have only one clear, ‘concrete’ meaning but others, connected with their history or usage. If we use a term like ‘bread’ or ‘milk’, ‘salt’, ‘dog’, 'blue' and so on we conjure up a host of associations that are like shadows or echoes, which come from previous usages. The Bible, for instance, has many references to bread, and some to salt: daily bread; cast thy bread upon the waters; man shall not live by bread alone; the salt of the earth. Other examples come from Shakespeare (the milk of human kindness) and other writers, or from different sources altogether – nautical or farming customs and so on. These echoes can enhance to what we write, augment its mood and impact.

Words may also have other properties that arise from the way things look or sound, feel or operate. Think of the properties of bread – warm, soft and fragrant, or maybe crisp and broken easily apart. Milk is white and pure, with connotations of motherhood; while water has a huge number of properties. It flows through our fingers, it forms fountains, rivers, the sea… it can be still or raging. It has no colour but reflects all the colours there are. You can wash in it, or be baptised. You can drink it, it may save your life; you can drown in it.

So words are like treasure-houses or miracle foods, high-energy biscuits such as explorers use; or best of all, like plant-bulbs, which take the goodness of previous seasons down into themselves, and store it for the future. And it's all waiting there for us – those meanings, associations and properties, to be unpacked or uncoiled by us, to spring open and help us do our work.

I wrote a story some time ago which illustrates these points quite well. It is the touching story of two people who are attracted to each other but can’t get together for various reasons (nothing new there, then).

A decorator is working in the house of a young girl; each is attracted to the other but without any real hope of a good outcome. He is poor, living in a dilapidated old house in an impoverished part of London where he looks after a disabled son; she is a yuppie living in a gentrified area, and with a possessive boyfriend. While at work she is aware of the decorator moving around her rooms and amongst her things; he thinks of her as something beautiful, but distant… I looked for some sort of additional idea to rub together with the first, because ideas need others with which to breed – and in a cupboard I found some shells that I had brought back from a holiday abroad.

I had one of those electric light moments, without which writing would not be worthwhile, or even possible. I was struck by all the meanings and associations of the shells, and by how appropriate they were for my story.

It’s a story about one word. Shells are houses, or dwelling-places, for certain marine creatures, and can therefore act as a symbol for our own houses and wider environments – this was relevant to my theme. We talk of people 'going back into their shells’ or even 'clamming up' when they are shy and can’t communicate (as is the case with my characters.)

Shells are usually found in a range of pretty colours, suitable for the decorating theme and the attractive girl. They may be delicate, fragile, breakable – like the girl, and the man’s feelings for her. They can also seem mysterious, with a small opening, spiralling chambers inside perhaps, a creature mysteriously hidden at its heart – qualities which seemed to parallel the mystery of the dawning relationship between the two characters, neither knowing the other or how things will turn out.

The spiral lines or patterns on some shells might be compared to the lines of life or patterns of destiny, something the decorator reflects upon at one point. And shells can represent a remote idea, an unattainable ideal - the distant music of the sea, which you can hear if you hold one to your ear. For the decorator, this represents ease, love, and beauty.

There is also a sexual connotation – that mysterious opening, the smooth textures, the colours; but shells can also be hard and cold, inhuman, as they appear at end of the story, underlining its sadness. Lastly, the empty shell signifies something that has lost all its meaning, has no further use.

So the word wrote the story for me. I teased out the meanings, threw them in the air, and let them fall back in the right order for my purpose. By using them throughout, I think I was able to give the story greater strength and significance, and to provide a more powerful experience for the reader.

Based on a talk and reading given at the Malt Cross, Nottingham, on 17th November 2017. The event 'From Inspiration to Print' also featured Roberta Dewa and Giselle Leeb.

'Shells' won the Society of Authors' Tom-Gallon Trust short story award in 2017, and is published in the collection 'Cello and other stories', Pewter Rose Press, 2008.