Today my writing journey will take me to the Kingston University staff cafe, where I’ll spend several hours expanding my rear end on a hard chair while editing the first chapter of my new novel. I’m actually up to chapter four, but decided to tweak a few things, just to put my mind at rest. It’s amazing when you revisit a piece of writing after a few days or weeks and discover mistakes, omissions and lack of clarity. There’s more I want to add, and I’ll be doing that today. Sometimes it feels like a huge mountain to climb. Every word needs to be scrutinized to make sure it’s doing its job.
A friend in Sydney has offered to do some research for me at the David Jones archives and the State Library. Am sure she will find lots of interesting anecdotes and details from the Forties that will help bring the story to life. I love the research side of writing and wish I could do it myself this time, but there’s still a lot I can do here in London, like visiting the V&A museum and the British Library.
David Jones has changed considerably over the years, and although I know it well, it was very different before I was born. I’ve unearthed some newspaper articles about the various formal functions and quirky services the store offered, such as their knitwear mending department, but can’t find much about the decor and layout of the shop. In particular, I’m after photographs and descriptions of the top floor restaurant circa 1946-48, the atmosphere and design, bands that played there and the music they played, the dress code, menus, special events and international guests etc.
Specific details are so important in fiction. They bring a story to life for the reader. Reading is about education as much as entertainment, and if a writer uses specific words to describe something the reader will be right there in the story, as if living through each moment. Just be careful not to overdo it. Readers don’t want unnecessary information, they want details that matter to the story. So beware of using details that are either irrelevant or boring, or both!
When I visit Sydney and shop in David Jones it’s like going home: the familiar façade, the particular smell of each department, the sound of the elevator, the polite, well-groomed staff putting their best foot forward, glamorous women browsing happily – and intensely – among the vast and eclectic choice of international and Australian-designed fashion, the smell of tobacco and French perfume, fresh flowers and new cotton.
When I was a boarder at St Catherine’s Girls’ School in Waverley http://www.stcatherines.nsw.edu.au/ my mother took me shopping to D.J’s, as it is affectionately called, to buy my school uniform. Getting the right items was a serious business. There were strict rules about how to wear the uniform — hat, gloves, sports tunic, shoes, socks, bloomers, jumper, cardigan, shirts, winter tunic, summer frock, swim suit, swim cap, sandshoes and P.E. bag — all these had to be regulation issue. You couldn’t buy any old straw hat or yellow checked summer frock. They had to be those that had been specially designed for St Catherine’s Girls’ School in Waverley. It was a very strict Anglican school and quite old-fashioned. My mother ordered embroidered name tags from the store, and my grandmother sewed them securely by hand to each garment, even my handkerchiefs. There was no such thing as a box of tissues. My connection to D.J.’s is one of nostalgia and love. I felt thoroughly spoiled on those special trips, trying on my uniform in the hallowed changing rooms under the close supervision of a smart sales woman.
It must have been hard for writers before we all had a computer. Research is so much easier today. Think of any subject and you will find something about it on the web. But there are some things the internet can’t offer. It can’t conjure tastes and smells – it can only describe them. There’s nothing like experiencing the real thing for creating accurate and telling details. Aim for originality and quirkiness. Don’t write about the things we all know about, write about the unusual. The American writer Annie Proulx (author of Brokeback Mountain) is a master at this. Look at this example from her novel That Old Ace in the Hole:
Chapter 1: Global Pork Rind
In late March Bob Dollar, a young, curly-headed man of twenty-five with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes, drove east along Texas State Highway 15 in the panhandle, down from Denver the day before, over the Raton Pass and through the dead volcano country of northeast New Mexico to the Oklahoma pistol barrel, then a wrong turn north and wasted hours before he regained the way. It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac. NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home.
Wow! That’s a heckuvva lot of detail, but oh! how it brings this story to life. You’re right there in the thick of Bob Dollar’s unique world from the get-go. In this wonderfully evocative opening paragraph she’s covered three of the five senses: smell (sagebrush and aromatic sumac), sounds (preaching and punchy music), sights (a roaring spring morning with green in the sky), and also managed to give specific names to places (Texas State Highway 15 . . . Denver . . . Raton Pass . . . New Mexico . . . Oklahoma . . . NPR . . . ) - phew!
It’s exciting to think my friend will unearth details and anecdotes that I can use to bring my story to life, combining them with my own memories and facts from other sources.
So, if you need to know what tahini, caviar or sumac tastes like, buy some and try it yourself, then your description will be unique. If your character has to ride an elephant through the African jungle, go to the zoo and pay to ride one yourself. If you need to know what it’s like to stand on the top of a mountain, climb the highest hill you can find and then let your imagination soar. If your character has to undergo surgery, see if you can arrange to watch an operation being performed at your local hospital. People are usually willing to help writers with their research. Don’t be afraid to approach anyone who can help. Yes, it’s harder if your story is historical fiction, but some things never change, such as the smell of jasmine or hot meat pies, or the sound of a tram sparking on the wire, or a blackbird singing in the dead of night. If you’re stuck, see if you can find books that evoke sounds, sights, smells that you can use, but beware of using the same description. You don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.
How do you combine facts, anecdotes, history, personal experience and memory with imagination? I’m not going to say: it’s easy! But when you start to string it all together, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, your fictional character’s unique interpretation of the world will begin to miraculously unfold on the page. Patience is the virtue writers need most.
Once you’ve got the background details right you need to bring your main character to life. To create a three-dimensional character, one that has thoughts, actions and emotions, give him or her a fatal flaw. She can be charming & lovable in all sorts of ways, but if you give her a character flaw that causes her problems, you are halfway to creating a believable and original character. Similarly, if you are writing about a totally flawed character like a murderer or criminal, give them a redeeming feature to make them more realistic. A bear of a man who can twist the neck of his victims then lay on the floor petting his cat.
My new main character is impulsive. This flaw leads to all sorts of adventures. Think of people you know: even the ones who seem perfect have problems and annoying habits and traits that will trip them up and make life difficult at times. Put two elements together that don’t usually belong together. Nancy Lamb (author of The Art & Craft of Storytelling) calls this “the owl on the beach” method. The term came to her after she encountered an owl on a beach in California, a sight that was unusual to say the least, because owls normally prefer woodlands to ocean. Perhaps your character is an immaculately attired bank manager during the day but at night, when he is home on his own, he strips down to his underwear and eats out of a takeaway carton. Perhaps your character is a wild child who sleeps with a different man every night, but during the day is a thoughtful couples counsellor who helps save marriages. Two opposing features make characters worth knowing, it gives them depth and realism.
One of the best things about writing on a computer is that you can write anywhere.
Even without one you can do the same, and follow in the footsteps of many famous writers who write their novels using nothing but a pen and paper. I love visiting the British Library where you can see original hand-written manuscripts in all their faded, untidy, first draft honesty. You can view some of the world’s most exciting and significant books, many in first draft manuscript form, covered in hand-written notes and corrections, from Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible, to Handel and the Beatles. You can closely observe the genius behind the Leonardo notebooks, and see the earliest versions of some of the greatest works of English literature, including Alice’s Adventures Under Ground and Shakespeare’s First Folio. You can see Jane Austen’s and Oscar Wilde’s hand-writing http://www.bl.uk/whatson/permgall/treasures/literary.html and how they crossed out words and added words to achieve their literary vision. There are sacred texts and works by Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath and more.
All these authors and writers had to work hard at their craft. When I visit the library and look at their work it inspires me to keep writing, to ignore the threat to my health and sit at my desk every day until my mind is exhausted. I know I will never write anything as good as these writers did, but I also know it’s what I was born to do. And if I’m going to keep doing it, I want to make sure I’ve got all the tricks of the trade at my disposal.
Wishing you the inspiration from life, present and past, that will keep you motivated to write.