I originally wrote this for the Authors Electric blogging group to which I belong, based around a bit of de-cluttering over the Christmas holiday break: emptying lever-arch files full of research no longer needed! The size of the piled-up notes, articles printed out to re-read and study more carefully, and story plans was as deep as a stair… not a waste of paper, but just amazing to see what it takes in raw material to develop an idea…
And now I’ve thrown out the image so… 2 lever arch files stuffed full… and my imagined characters, in childhood…
Summer term, the mid 1970s. Two small girls who’ve reached the top of the village primary school, lie on their stomachs at the back of a large Victorian house, staring down into a basement room. The house, suitably converted, is the local GP surgery, the basement, one of the consulting rooms. Jenny has brought her soon-to-be stepsister Daisy here to view the place where her mother (who’ll soon be Daisy’s stepmother), works. They watch, full of curiosity, as Jenny’s mother examines a young woman, whom they recognise as a shop assistant from the local town. Until, discovered by the receptionist, they are roundly told off…
This passage was written as the opener to a story which takes up these two characters some years later. Jenny is one of the central players in a complex story involving the two girls in some risky occurrences, a medical mystery, and romance. At the time, it seemed to fit perfectly as the reader’s introduction to several central characters, giving a portrait of Jenny as a child consumed by curiosity, and of Daisy as someone she won’t allowed to forget. But it was axed by happy mutual agreement when I worked on the draft manuscript along with a literary consultant.
Another vivid scene introduces our reader to Jenny’s fellow protagonist. We meet Max, aged about thirteen, in his father’s gloomy study, dark velvet curtains partly closed. He is in trouble, along with some friends, for using an antique microscope to repeat a well-known historical experiment. Max’s father, a church minister, is so outraged at what they’ve done that he has lobbed the innocent piece of scientific equipment through the window of Max’s attic bedroom, before punishing his son.
Rewritten in historic form, and later in the book, that scene was retained as an iconic family memory. And the manse where it happened has now been a setting in three stories. I know that big granite house somewhere in the north-east of England so well that I could conduct you around it, from the hall (with coat stand and special home-made rack to store skateboarding helmets and knee pads), past the study and the formal living room (opposite doors in the passage) to the big family kitchen–breakfast room (Aga and pine table large enough for a family of seven), and the family room with piano and doors opening onto the garden. I know the veg patch and the treehouse and their stories. Another house I know well is the converted chapel (with artist’s studio), where Jenny grows up far in the west of Cornwall, the clifftop blackberry plants, the coves and the zawns, the landscape of her childhood. They are ‘home’ in the minds of the chief characters, even though the descriptive passages have long been dropped.
Recently I even threw out, in an attempt at decluttering, four fat lever arch files full of articles I’d downloaded, printed out, and mined for information necessary to understand and describe the scientific mystery which the young people in my story attempt to unravel. In the writer’s mind, old writing can live alongside her characters, especially if she chooses to write a series and (far from being wasted hours) it remains fresh and accessible, even when the scenes it was created for never become part of a book.
And of course, as we write and rewrite, our characters may get up to all manner of activity which, again, never sees the light of day beyond a few weeks or months of existence as a precious computer file, now deleted.
The odd thing is, they can be retained in our memories. The writer can picture the scene even if it has been eliminated from the character’s life — it hasn’t from the writer’s!
Memory, imagination, creativity are wonderful and curious things. Do you have characters or incidents or even plots retained in your mind, a world built in words and pictures but eventually consigned to the recycling bin? We may know how our characters reached the point where they enter the plot — the reader may have only hints of childhood, university, first love, prior career, the the influence of siblings and environment — vital to the outworking of their developing characteristics, interests, skills or psychological problems — and these have all been developed and then dumped in the process which some people call “murdering your darlings” — but were those extra writing hours a waste of time?