Category Archives: Write what you know

Pivot Points

Let me tell you about the Marie Antoinette watch.

Its said to be the greatest watch ever made.

One day in 1783, an admirer of the French queen arrived at the workshop of Adam-Louis Breguet, the greatest watchmaker in Paris.  He wanted the perfect watch for the perfect woman.  His commission was to be without bounds.  Breguet was to pour everything he knew into making the most complex, and most beautiful timepiece possible.  Money was no object.

The watch became Breguet’s obsession.  Even after the French monarchy fell, Marie Antoinette was executed, and the lucrative business he had built from the commissions of the aristrocracy was in ruins, Breguet continued to craft his masterpiece.  Ultimately, it took forty years to complete, and had to be finished by Breguet’s son, four years after the master himself died.

Known officially as the Breguet No. 160 Grand Complication, the watch contained every function known at that time – Breguet even invented a few new ones.  It was crafted in precious metals and gems.  Breguet used sapphire for all the mechanical pivot points in the clockwork, in order reduce friction.

And its these sapphire pivot points that fascinate me.

Because I’m at a pivot point right now.

You will have noticed in recent months that this blog has become fairly, if not completely, dormant.  Life has, as it were, taken over.  There was no space to write.  No space in my life.  No space in my head.

Then, in September, on my birthday ironically, my mother-in-law died.  Her dementia had been filling up all the space in my brain and in my life.  Since she has been gone, I’ve begun to recollect not only who I am, but also all the activities that had been shelved and forgotten in order to look after her.  So many things I wanted in my life had fallen away, out of necessity.  And so many things now seemed irrelevant.

In the last few months, I know that I have changed not only profoundly but also irrevocably.  So much more has been happening than simply looking after my ailing elderly relative – things which are someone else’s story to tell.  And yet they, too, have had a hand in my transformation.  My life has been like a pack of cards, being shuffled by the Hand of (insert your favourite deity/scientific motivator here).

The day my mother-in-law died was a beautiful day.  The sun shone.  The sky was a perfect sapphire blue.  I stood outside the hospital foyer with a soft, warm wind on my face, and knew that I had reached one of Breguet’s pivots.  Wasn’t the sky exactly the right blue, after all?  And does not sapphire reduce friction?

The friction of life with Alzheimers is gone.  The cards that were thrown up into the air have fallen back down in a new order.  The things that seemed important then are irrelevant now, and vice versa.

Now the funeral is over, now the first shock of grief has passed, I find all I want to do is write.  I want to write something profound.  I want to write because I have changed.  I want to write something real.  Something hard.  Something pivotal.  My own sapphire pivot point.  So I am writing.  By hand in my journal.  In notebooks, longhand.  Using Natalie Goldberg’s wisdom as my map, I am steadily shuffling my way towards the light.

I hope I am making my own ‘Grand Complication’, out of the precious metals and gems of my own life.  I hope you will join me on my journey.  And I hope it won’t take me the forty years it took Breguet!

Happy Creating,

EF

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Inspiration Monday: Commuting

I’ve written already about the wisdom of walking for the creative life.

No reason why I shouldn’t repeat myself, of course.  Especially now we are in a new year, with new Intentions and new opportunities.  I have promised myself I will walk more this year.  Sometimes, this is not an easy promise to fulfil.  There are appointments to be met, after all; there is the filthy English weather (and believe me, filthy is what it is at present), and then there are my physical limitations.

Yet, in spite of the mud and the commitments and my low energy levels, I am trying to get out most days.

And there are so many things to see.  Some of the best walks I’ve ever had have been the repetitive ones to and from work, or school, the continual plodding on the pavements that sets up a meditative rhythm.  This time of year, walking home in twilight is especially evocative.  Not only can you see into other people’s houses as you pass, because many people don’t draw their curtains too early, but the landscape changes when industrial lights are switched on.

As a teenager, my walk home from our nearest bus stop was a route that skirted fields and woods.  Behind those woods, though, lay a huge industrial area, lit by massive floodlights in the dark hours.  The entire night sky glowed with this statement of manmade power over the environment.  To me, it looked uncannily like one of those landing pads on strange planets from the Star Wars films, and it fuelled my imagination continually.

Walking is not the only way to travel home from work, of course.  Sitting on a bus is great for inspiration too.  You can see so much more from the height of a bus seat, and not just into people’s windows, and thus into little vignettes of their lives.  Tableaux of office workers frozen in time as you pass their workplaces will catch your eye: someone handing over a file as the recipient reaches out to take it over a low  desk partition;  a group of besuited workers sitting around a conference table working out details of a deal; a pile of files teetering in an in-tray.  What are they talking about, these people who are so busy?  Whose lives will be changed by the outcome of that meeting, for better or worse?  What details, sinister or otherwise, are contained in those files – the potential for a fraud conviction, or the much-cherished hope of an adopted baby?

On a train, disparate people gather together and ignore one another.  They listen to hissing music on iPods and phones, tap at laptops or iPads, read books and newspapers, stare out of the window or fall asleep.  Each one has a story.  Can you be Sherlock Holmes and deduce their tale?

Viriginia Woolf, my heroine of writers, snatched up just such an opportunity in her short story, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, in which the narrator sits on a train and tries to guess the tale of a woman sitting in her compartment.  If you have never read it, I enthusiastically recommend it, not only as an example of how you can take a moment from your everyday life and make a work of art from it, but also for its fine stream-of-consciousness style and its sheer wit.  People’s occupations on trains may have changed since it was written, but the way we react to them, I should hazard, probably has not.

Creative Exercise:

How do you travel to your daily occupation?  Do you take the bus, train or Tube?  Do you cycle or walk?  Whichever you do, you may view it as a necessary evil, a time to catch up on your email, or some extra sleep.

What about reframing that view?

What if your daily commute to work, college or school became a special time set aside for creativity?

You could take a sketchbook and a biro and draw portraits of your fellow commuters.  This might develop into a whole series of painted portraits that depict your daily travels and those who accompany you on your journey.

You could compose a story about them in your head, and use it as the basis of a short story or novel, as Woolf did.

You could even go all ‘Brief Encounter’ and come up with a passionate love story between two of your fellow travellers!

(Probably best not to do this so much if you drive.  A vehicle is a life-threatening weapon, so you need to be alert and aware when you are in charge of it.  But maybe at traffic lights, you could look into other people’s cars and see what they are up to – applying mascara, fiddling with the radio, texting or picking their noses!)

What do you see as you travel?  What landscapes or buildings do you pass?  What could be going on inside that floodlit brick bunker that looks like a government establishment?  What story is being lived out on each floor of that block of flats you stomp past every morning? (I recommend Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel, The Yakoubian Building’, for an example of this.)

Take your writers notebook and make notes of the ideas that come to you.  Make this time a time for your imagination to be unleashed.  Make a chore, a daily misery, into the highlight of your working life.

Happy creating,

EF

A Letter to Darla’s Daughter about Fanfiction

Dear Darla’s daughter,

I’m really sorry, but when your mom left a comment on my website, she didn’t tell me what your name was, so I’ll have to hope you don’t mind my being a bit general.

Anyway, she said that you are 12 years old and that you like writing fanfiction, like me.  She also mentioned that she is trying to get you to start creating characters of your own, something you and I also have in common, because I am trying to do that too.  She believes this is important, and so do I, and I wanted to tell you why.

First, though, I want to say Yay for you!  You’re writing, and that is fantastic!

Writing, as I am sure you have found out for yourself, is great fun, some of the best fun, in fact, that it is possible to have.  And fanfiction?  Well, doing that just makes it even better.  You take other peoples characters and send them out into the world of your imagination.  You can make them do whatever you like, get them into all sorts of trouble, and get them out, have endless adventures with them – what’s not to like?  And then there’s the other thing about it.  You get to act out all your crushes on the gorgeous actors and pop stars that you like.  Yes, don’t blush, we all do it!

I was writing fanfiction at your age, although I was writing about actors and shows you have never heard of, and probably never will, and fanfiction didn’t even have a name back then!  It was something you did by the light of a torch under the blankets at night and didn’t tell your friends about.  A fantasy life all your own.  It was something embarrassing you did in private, like picking your nose!

Now it’s a recognised genre, although there is still a lot of snobbery about it, like there still is about all kinds of genre fiction, like crime and romance.  (Usually the people who criticize it are not writers themselves, though, so feel free to completely ignore their opinions because they invariably don’t know what they are talking about!)  Today, people recognise that most of the great writers have written fanfiction at some point, and popular and literary novelists are being paid to write fanfiction novels for the legitimate market.

Fanfiction is a great thing to do, too, because it allows you to practise, to test out your writing skills and grow them.  The more you write, the better you get, and if you are enthusiastic about the characters, you will write more.  You get to experiment in ways you just can’t with other types of writing.  And if you share your work online, there is a whole world of other writers willing to help, advise and support you as you learn.  So don’t ever let anyone tell you it is wrong to write fanfiction, or that its not ‘real’ writing, because it is.

But here is the thing:  using another writer’s characters can only take you so far.  And if you really like writing, if you really want to get good at it, you have to take the next step.  You have to make up your own original characters.

Why?

Well, here is the thing:  At the heart of every truly great story are great characters.  Look at Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, for example.  Both are full of fantastic, original characters, from Severus Snape to Frodo Baggins.  There are outstanding characters in every truly great novel.  Think of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’, Willy Wonka in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or even my favourite, the wonderful Sherlock Holmes.  In films, you might choose the shark fisherman Quint in ‘Jaws’ (which you are too young to have seen, I suppose, but that’s a treat for the future!), James Bond or Spock in ‘Star Trek’; on the stage, there is the villainous Salieri in Schaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ or the Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera’.  If you haven’t come across any of these yet, I encourage you to seek them out because they are tremendous.

All original.  Each loved by millions.  And each one has ensured their creator’s immortality.

So, to become a great writer, or even a good one, you need to have at the core of your work truly great characters.

But here is the really wonderful part:

There are only seven plots. Okay, yes, you can chop them up and interchange bits of them endlessly, but basically, there are a limited number of things you can do, plot-wise.

But there are as many original characters in your head as there are people on the planet.  And here is why:

No one, anywhere, even if you are a twin, has ever had the same experience of the world as you.

You are unique.

The way your mind works, what has happened to you, the things you think about and imagine, that you think are important, that you love and hate, are all unique.  There may be a few people quite like you, but no one, anywhere, has ever experienced the world exactly the same way as you.

And because you are unique, your imagination is unique.  No one else can create quite the same kinds of characters as you.

And once you start creating your own characters, they start getting up doing things inside your head that are completely exciting and unexpected and utterly amazing.  Believe me – I was writing a novel a few years back, and one of my main characters just upped and died right there in front of me, without any warning, and I didn’t know what to do because half of the rest of the book depended on her being there!  Help!  Okay, I fixed it in the end, but it was a scary moment.  And also utterly wonderful.

Once you start creating your own characters, your writing moves on to the next level.  That element of chaos as they take on a life of their own is only the start.

That is the moment when the wonderful thrill of story-telling hits you, and you open your wings, and take off, and soar through the air.

Fanfiction is great, believe me, but it is like being a sparrow when you could be an eagle,  And wouldn’t you rather be an eagle?

So creating your own characters isn’t just thing your mom goes on about because its what she thinks is important, even though you are having so much more fun making the pin-ups on your bedroom walls have romantic adventures through fanfiction.  She wants you to taste the real freedom of the imagination, as do I.

That is why I am going to write a lot less fanfiction this year, and concentrate more on my original characters.  I’m already having so much fun with it.  So why don’t you join me?

With Best Wishes from your fellow writer,

Evenlode’s Friend.

Exploring Character: Handbags and Pockets

EV005075Let me tell you a story.

A long time ago, I bought my first car, a battered old Nissan Cherry.  I loved it, unreliable though it was.  In order to celebrate liberation from the tyranny of bus timetables, my friend and I decided to go on a day trip to Rockingham Castle, about an hour’s drive away.  It was an extremely hot summer’s day and, in the way of ancient cars everywhere, my new chariot broke down.  We sat on the grassy verge, waiting for steam to stop bellowing from under the bonnet, and sweltering in the heat.

My friend, who was a redhead, and thus especially vulnerable to sunburn, turned to me and sighed:  ‘What we really need is some suntan lotion.’

I pulled three bottles out of my handbag.  ‘Do you want Factor 8, 15 or 30?’

By now you will have guessed that I am the sort of person who likes to prepare for every eventuality.  I always have paracetamol in my handbag.  I can always be relied upon to be possessed of optical wipes for cleaning mucky spectacles, spare tissues, chocolate of course, and even echinacea lozenges just in case someone has a sore throat.  This is not because I have children – any mother will tell you that it is necessary to have a handbag full of bandaids, crayons and baby wipes.  It is because I am the sort of person that worries.

I know a man who always carries a length of string in his pocket.  He is a very practical person, and he tells me how useful a spare bit of string can be in unexpected situations.  This always seems a surprise to me, since he travels around the world, fixing nuclear power stations for a living.  Quite apart from the fact that I don’t want to imagine the kind of nuclear power station scenario in which a length of gardeners twine might save the day, I always feel he is the sort of person whom you could reasonably expect to be in possession of a sonic screwdriver.  For real.  The string therefore says a lot about his practical, if eccentric, character.

The things we carry with us say so much about who we are.  Ask a group of female friends to open their handbags and you will find the ones who carry about four different shades of lipstick, a packet of cuppa soup, or a spare bag to pick up dog poop.  Just look at the handbags, too.  There are those who insist on the vast sacks that are so fashionable these days, the ones who like bags with lots of pockets to organise things (and the ones with pocket bags who can never find anything inside the vast number of pockets), and the austerely practical ones who favour a tiny, cross-body pouch barely big enough to hold a purse, phone and keys.

Mens’ pocket contents are just as informative.  My husband’s pockets are always full of folded pieces of copier paper, on the outside of which he has made cryptic notes in his other-worldly, hieroglyphic handwriting.  He sheds them at the end of the day, leaving piles of folds on the dining room table.  I bought him a notebook once, but he rarely used it.  His paper folds reflect his scattered mode of thinking, and the fact that he is always thinking about something, even in the midst of something else.

Character could also undoubtedly be read in manbags, laptop bags, briefcases, breast pockets and poachers pockets in coats and suit jackets.  Each is a map to an individual’s mind, habits, and priorities as unique as its owner.

Writing Exercise:

This exercise is probably as old as the hills, and I have no idea who originally came up with it, but it always strikes gold for me when I am writing a new character.

Take out your notebook, and start a fresh page (of course).  Give yourself a few minutes to imagine the character you want to work with.  Picture them in your mind in as much detail as you can.  Clothes, smell, tone of voice and stance.  Now get them to empty out their pockets – or their handbag (or equivalent).

What items are so essential to them that they always have to carry them around?

Do they keep sentimental items on them, perhaps a pendant that belonged to an old lover, an outdated student ID card, a rosary or St Christopher.

My father always carried a crisply ironed gentlemens handkerchief of pure white cotton, fresh every day.  Is your character the kind that carries tissues, a handkerchief, or wipes their nose on their cuff?

This is a little like a writer’s version of Kim’s Game, except that each article you choose, from the broken crumbs of a forgotten polo mint to the famous sonic screwdriver, says something important about your character.  Why do they carry these things?  Is it for practical, spiritual or even superstitious reasons?  Are they carrying the past to motivate them in the present, or do they keep an array of useful bits close, just in case?

You could even expand this exercise to include car glove compartments and boots (trunks).

This exercise should give you a great start when you are working with a new character.  You will find out so many things about them that you never would have imagined possible.  Let them dance before your eyes, peeling off elements of themselves as if performing the Dance of the Seven Veils.  It’s so exciting when a new person reveals themselves to you.

And remember, once you know who they are, you will know how they behave.  And it is their behaviour that will make your plot.

Happy Writing,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Observing Roles

Captain Cook's teacup

Captain Cook’s Teacup

A few days staying with my mother require me to be paraded around the village, being shown off to friends.

I am taken to her oldest friends first:  Husband was close to my father, Wife is my mother’s best friend, and something of a surrogate mother to me.  They are Scottish, loving, hospitable.

My mother sits primly on the sofa while the tea set is laid out, her little legs crossed at the ankles, not quite touching the floor.  We are having the best china, and a freshly baked Victoria Sandwich cake, set on a glass cake stand and dusted with icing sugar.  This is a proper English afternoon tea.

I notice how polite my mother is being.  The way she holds the fork as she eats her cake so delicately.  The way she plucks at her napkin.  The way she stirs her tea with her teaspoon, holding the end like a pen, making the prescribed figure of eight with the bowl, just so.  I notice the way she nods, agrees, doesn’t initiate conversation.  I realise she is being a Good Girl.  Just as her own mother taught her, back before the War, she is behaving politely in order to be accepted.

Our hosts are playing roles too.  She is the Hospitable Hostess, asking kind questions, offering more cake.  Her husband is sitting enthroned in his armchair, interjecting occasionally with amusing quips or information, partly the Wise Sage, and partly the Jester – he always played the Jester to my father’s Straight Man when I was a child.

Then their middle daughter arrives, a beautiful woman a little older than I am, with a grown-up family and a business of her own.  As soon as she walks into the house, though, she adopts the role of Mischievous Daughter, stealing a donut from the kitchen, helping herself to a cup of tea (without a saucer), lounging in an armchair and making us all laugh.

I glance at my mother.  She is laughing politely.  Still being the Good Girl.

And me?  Well, I am the Entertainment.  Which is another way of saying that I am being the Good Girl too.  Pleasing my mother by being polite and charming her friends.  Being a credit to her.  Displaying the manners she taught me.  Sitting up straight, holding my teacup correctly, watching my language, and wishing profoundly that I could play the Mischievous Daughter too, which would be a lot more fun, and more like who I really am.

We all play social roles, in company, with family, with friends, with strangers, colleagues or acquaintances.  Our roles change according to those we are with, and to circumstance.  Sometimes we even change roles within a single situation.  This is not necessarily being inauthentic, or even manipulative.  It is the way human beings function socially together, as all animals who live in groups do.  It began as a means of survival, but today has become a complicated social pas de deux.

And why am I talking about it?  Well, because if we play roles, what about the characters we write?  You may know who your protagonist is, you may have written his back story in detail, and know how he might respond in a given situation, but have you thought about the roles he might play?  Does he play roles to fit in, or does he reject them?  Or does he continually play different roles to get what he wants, to manipulate others?  And if he does the latter, how are you, the writer, going to keep track of who he is underneath those roles?

Writing Exercise

Begin to observe social encounters going on around you as dispassionately as you can.  Can you see what social roles are being played?  Who is being submissive, funny, polite, in order to win friends?  Who is refusing the engage with the social dance?  Who is asserting their dominance as Alpha Male or Female?  Who is the real person under the role?  What are their motivations for choosing the role they do?

Remember to observe without judgement.  This is not about values.  This is about behaviour.

Spend some time writing down the roles you observe, and reflecting on them, in your writers notebook.  Think especially about what lies underneath the role, what event might cause a person to adopt one role rather than another.

Write a scene about some characters you are currently working with.  What roles could be played here?  What non-verbal behaviour communicates that role – or betrays what is going on underneath?  See if you can write your characters functioning at two levels, the role they play, and the real person behind the role.  Explore this difficulty where you can to make your characters more three dimensional.

Meanwhile, I am going back to contemplating the idea that my mother, my dominant, matriarchal mother, could actually play the Good Girl, because its not an idea I have ever entertained before, and its going to take a while to get my head around it!

Happy Writing,

EF

How to Write: Write what you know, or not…

writing books

Most books on how to write will tell you this:  write what you know.

If you have some major area of expertise, they say, you should use that as a background for your novels.  Dick Francis, a famous jockey, wrote crime novels set against the backdrop of the horse-racing world, with spectacular success.  John Grisham was a criminal lawyer and politician before publishing fabulously successful legal thrillers.  Agatha Christie drew on her war work as a hospital dispenser when writing her detective fiction.  All of these authors, and many more, have made huge successes of writing about what they know.

BUT –

(And the word BUT has a bit of fairy dust in it that magically negates everything that comes before it, have you noticed that?)

I once heard novelist Rachel Cusk at a reading on the subject.  She was stridently against the idea of writing about what you know.  She said words to the effect of:

‘You know, we write fiction, and the clue is in the name.  Fiction.  It means we make it up.’

Take a moment to think about this:  the genre of science fiction would never have been invented if we only wrote about what we know.  No one has travelled across the Universe of the star ship USSS Enterprise, after all.  Fancy a world without ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Game of Thrones’?  That would be the logical conclusion.

And what about crime?  Yes, I agree there are a number of very talented writers producing procedural crime novels who have a background in criminal pathology or forensics, but how many truly great crime writers have actually personally killed someone? (None, we hope.)

‘Write what you know’ does not, therefore, take account of the most wonderful asset we have, the thing that makes human beings extraordinary amongst all the myriad of life on this planet:

Imagination

Imagination enables us to fly beyond the stars at warp speed, fight dragons with broadswords, fall in love with Benedict Cumberbatch and have him love us back.  And all in our lunch break.  Think about it –who really wants to write about their day job when they can write about this stuff?

There is, of course, a caveat.  Sometimes you need to do research.  And research is a double-edged sword on which you fall at your own peril:

I wrote a book set in London.  I have not lived in London.  I gave it to a friend to read, and he was a Londoner, born and bred.  He asked me about the car chase – Where are they?  Where are they going?  What road are they on?  He was frustrated because he knew the city well and he could not orient himself within the action.  I had not done my research and I did not know the setting well enough to wing it.  The novel collapsed for the reader as a result.

The opposite is true.  I wrote this story, set partly in Oxford, a city I know well and visit often.  I was able to undertake the depicted walk myself, just to be sure I had the details and the route right.  The result was a story that was adored by readers who knew the city too.  I had a personal email from one who was delighted that memories of her student days had been rekindled by my work.

So, getting the details right is important.  If you don’t, you can look like an idiot who doesn’t know what he is talking about, and the credibility of your story collapses.

BUT

(Fairy dust again.)

There is such a thing as having too much detail.  The first novel I wrote was set in the Iron Age, around 230BC, on the Newbury Downs.  It is not an area I know well, though I have driven through it.  And I have no background in archaeology or prehistory, so I had to research it all myself.  It took me seven years to finish it, and I gave up doing word counts after 250,000.  I knew too much.  I had too much detail – there are things I know about Iron Age saddles that normal human beings really shouldn’t know.  It’s doubtful that any reader would care.

And yes, you always get the odd accuracy fiend who emails you to say (puts on squeaky voice) ‘Er, the spoon your hero was using in scene 23?  Well, those kinds of spoons were not invented till three hundred years after the date you posit…’ etc etc.  But those are not your average readers.  Unless you write sci-fi, in which case you had damn well know your warp cores from your improbability drives.

“The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.”

-Benjamin Disraeli

The point I am trying to make here is this:  Ignore the advice.

Write what you want to write.

Write what you need to write.

(And if you have to, do the research.)

I promise to talk more about research in a future post, but in the meantime, do this:

Write the novel you want to read.

Happy creating,

EF