Monday, 24 June 2013

Do I know this place? by Mary Smith

After reading Jenny’s excellent post last week about how we create our characters I started thinking about the settings into which we put them.

Without a setting to provide the background and framework of our story, the characters would be living in some kind of a vacuum. No matter how well developed they are, there would be little to engage the interest of the reader as nothing very much can happen in a vacuum. If there is no place there is no story.

Even in a short story where a limited word count means only a few deft brush strokes may be used to describe the place, we still, as readers, want to know where the action is happening. Providing a strong sense of place adds depth to our writing.

Robert Louis Stevenson said we are creatures of our environment – which means we must make sure our characters are creatures of their environment. Jekyll and Hyde’s Edinburgh is a good example, or think about how important the desert island is to the plot and the characters’ behaviour in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or what Tara means to Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.

I suppose, in many ways, the setting is another character to be created with as much care as the other people in the story. Place, whether it is a city, small town, a world in a far away galaxy or a prison cell, has to be as believable as our hero and heroine. If it is a real place, the task is easier – as long as you get the detail right because for sure if it is a real place someone will be ready to point out anything you get wrong.

The reverse happened to me when I visited a book group to discuss my novel No More Mulberries. It is set in Afghanistan but the places, other than the major cities, are fictional. I was taken aback when a member of the group arrived, armed with her world atlas, asking me to pinpoint on the map of Afghanistan the village of Sang-i-Sia. She was quite miffed when I explained it didn’t actually exist!

While writing this and mulling over decisions about settings, I have realised one of the problems I’m facing right now is the setting (s) in the biography I’m struggling to write. I have a wonderful archive of material including letters but I don’t really know what the interior of her house was like,  or the inside of the laundry she operated. I need to remember the R L Stevenson comment and start sketching in details of my subject’s surroundings.

I’m curious about how writers decide where their story is going to take place? Is it based on a real place you know well? Or, do you use a picture from a magazine – a lovely house, perhaps, and set your characters loose in it?

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Do I know her? by Jenny Harper

'The Girl with a Pearl Earring'
by Johannes Vermeer,
via Wikimedia Commons

How do you create your characters? I find that sometimes they bounce into your head fully formed, but sometimes they evolve as your story evolves and you get to know them. Sometimes a character in a newspaper or magazine photograph begs to be written into your story – but sometimes you have to sit down and search for them.

I like using photographs as a stimulus and it's good to have them by you as you write, to remind you of that stubbly chin or that faraway look, or the eyes the colour of the sea in November.

Perhaps one single image can set off a complete idea for a novel. Think of Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier – she must have had a moment of blinding inspiration sitting in front of Vermeer's famous portrait. Interpreting the look on the face of the little serving girl and developing her imaginings into a full-length novel – how brilliant is that?

Film stars are a great source of inspiration, not so much because we use their personalities as the basis for characters (which of us really knows a film star?), but because of how they look.

Quite often, I find that characters and plot are inextricably linked. The story would not have been set in train at all, for example, if Joe hadn't been such a dozy guy that he completely forgot to bring flowers home on his first wedding anniversary/forgot to turn up for a crucial meeting/stepped out in front of a car and got himself run over because he was dreaming about Jane.

So far so good. But what happens when the character you're writing about is based on someone you know? Your mother-in-law, for example? Does that inhibit you or stimulate you? What will she say when she reads it?

I haven't actually tried this technique yet, but I'm assured by some very experienced writers that people never do recognise themselves – and if the character is bossy, or malicious, or greedy, or has some other negative trait, they are quite likely to 'recognise' the woman down the road! I'm really tempted to try it and see what happens.

Have you ever based your character of someone you know? And have there ever been repercussions? Do tell!

Saturday, 8 June 2013


Writing is, for the most part and for most writers, a solitary life. There are, of course, those who share offices with partners/friends but I'd bet my last ink cartridge that they are alone in their heads all the same. If we exchange ideas with someone else then it is not our sole work, in my humble opinion...:) But we do have to put in the lonesome hours. I often forget to eat when I'm deeply into something. Mugs of coffee go cold. It's only when I start to feel very uncomfortable that I realise I need the loo. All self-inflicted lonesomeness. I'm sure there are many of us who stop work-in-progress for a few minutes (hours??) to look at Facebook or Twitter or trawl the internet for interesting snippets of this or that. But it's not the same as seeing someone, is it? We don't hear things like, 'Oh, I do like that colour on you' or 'Mmmm, you smell nice, what's the perfume?' So, as good as Facebook and Twitter and the like are for social networking we do, I think, need the physical. I go for a walk most days - for at least half an hour, up hill and down dale, and at a fair lick. Often, a sticky plot patch will unstick while I'm catching my breath after a steep climb. Or I'll meet someone I know and pass the time of day. And get those above-mentioned compliments which are so good for the soul, are they not? Writing has, quite literally, opened up my world. I have been on two writers' workshop holidays. One in Italy and the other in Corfu. In Italy. June Tate, Angela Arney, and Kathryn Haig were the tutors and I learned such a lot from the experience - not least that I love insalata tricolore! On that course I met a young American girl (same age as my daughter)called April who has remained a dear friend, even though she has now moved to Australia with her husband. And here she is in her local newsagent in Perth, excited to find one of my stories in Woman's Weekly. I have used the little hilltop, walled, town we stayed in - Sarteano - in more than a few short stories, so well worth the journey. In Corfu I met someone whose face fellow novelpointsofview members will recognise. June Tate and Angela Arney were again the tutors, and Katie Fforde joined them this time, following Kathryn's untimely death. There was a young local girl on this course - she'd been a ballerina (and yes, she was called Angelina!)in Russia until injury forced her retirement - whose English was excellent. I'm sure I'll never forget the beautifully scenic if terrifyingly hairy ride when she took three of us to the north of the island for dinner with her family. Being a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association drags me away from my swivel chair and my desk piled high with notes and pots of paperclips and pens. I've attended two conferences but the old cloth ears problem means I don't benefit from it as much as I could. I've become good friends with many I've met at the conferences and also the RNA events held in London. And here I am with Margaret James and Jane Bidder (aka Sophie King and Janey Fraser) when we did a presentation at Exeter Library. So, we do have to keep a balance, I think. But it's not all jollies.....the sun is shining, I have work to do, so I'm going to have to close the curtains and revert to that lonely writer in her garret.....for a little while:)

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Why Do We Read? by Gill Stewart

The idea for this blog came from Linda’s recent post For Whom Do You Write? which got me pondering on all sorts of fascinating topics such as the value of enjoyment, snobbery in literature, books versus films, to name but a few!

I realised that a lot of my thoughts came back to the question Why Do We Read?  Not why should we read, but why do we?  I came up with the following list of reasons:

  1)      For enjoyment.  This is purely to be entertained, to pass the time in a fun way.
  2)      For experience or self-improvement.  I put this in because I couldn’t find a better explanation for why I read poetry.  Sometimes I don’t even enjoy reading it, but a good poem gives you a glimpse of something different, something new.  This isn’t the same as 3), where something definite is gained.
  3)      To gain information.  I also separate this from 4) below as here I mean information for information’s sake, because it is something that interests us and we want to know it with no particular end purpose in mind.
  4)      To acquire knowledge for a particular purpose, e.g. reading for work or to pass an exam.
  5)      For the sake of appearance or status.  This might seem an odd reason for reading (it is to me!) but I’m sure we’re all familiar with the person who ‘only reads a book if it has been on the Booker list’ or buys a certain type of book in order to leave it artfully lying around the house. 
These categories are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.  I read Christina Courtenay’s Trade Winds (above) mostly for enjoyment, but I also derived pleasure from learning about places and customs I was unfamiliar with (eighteenth century Sweden is fascinating).  I am currently reading Virgil’s Aeneid (yes, still, it’s taking a long time!) for a whole variety of reasons including a desire to understand Latin so as to better understand English, for the story, for the poetry and for the exam that I’ll be sitting the week after next.

This great and varied enjoyment is the main reason I would want my children (in fact, all children) to read, and to love reading.  Why, then, do schools insist on introducing young people to books via ‘classics’?  School may well be the only way into reading for children from non-reading homes . How is a self-consciously clever or literary book going to teach them to enjoy reading?  It may, if it is a good story, but so many of the books currently pushed in schools are not.

Take Lord of the Flies for instance.  It is a book that is interesting, that explores various themes and is extremely well-written – but is it enjoyable?  If we want children to think about the psychology of groups and the causes of violence there are other ways to get them to do this, without making it an exercise in putting them off books for ever.

Spies by Michael Frayn is another case in point.  Again, it is written by someone who is a craftsman of the English language, but it is very contrived, setting up mysteries to be solved, introducing themes that are clearly there purely so they can be discussed and written about.  Books like this win prizes, presented by literary, adult writers to other literary, adult writers.  They are not what I would choose to give to a young person in the hope of imbuing them with a lifelong love of reading.

The Harry Potter series, on the other hand, is widely denigrated by the writing establishment (despite the early books winning the ‘Smarties’ Children’s Book Prize 3 years in a row – voted for by children).  They say it is too accessible that the language is clumsy and not challenging.  Yes, but it is brilliant entertainment!  It is a story that makes the child enter an imaginary world where their own imagination still has to do so much of the work (think of the Hogwarts you saw in your mind’s eye when reading versus the Hogwarts that is presented to us fully-formed on the cinema screen).  It teaches empathy, explores the battle of good and evil, not to mention masses of magic, a lot of adventure and a little romance. 

I think what I am trying to say is that there are many reasons for reading, all valid in their own way.  But if we put children off reading before they even start, they are missing out on so much: on the enjoyment of a good book, on the incredible amount of knowledge that is out there.  Reading has been likened to a conversation with people you’ve never met and maybe never will, who perhaps died centuries ago, but their thoughts and discoveries and stories are still there for us to access.  But only if we are not put off reading!

Why do you read?  And how do you think we can get others to read more – if indeed you think we should?