I’ll put you in my novel!
It’s a classic myth: along with the writerly notebook carried at all times. Once you let it out, you’re a writer, the first question from family and close friends, ‘Oh, are you going to put us in your novel?’ (Groan)
If you are a writer, the tease, ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’
Let’s look at the myth…
So writers always carry notebooks, and have this habit of seizing the moment, and noting down anything which can later appear in their writing? Writers are people who sew patchwork quilts from scraps on real life…articles, novels , etc.? Maybe.
There is after all great skill in choosing colours, and maybe following the old American quilt designs. And in all those tiny, tiny stitches (unless you cheat and use your machine …)
But using lives …Is it kind, is it honourable, is it ethical, do we have the right?
Of course, we may’ve spread the word tongue in cheek
… hard to tell how far into cheek. Just a little bit sideways (like a crooked smile?) or tucked safely away, as if to avoid the dentist’s drill?
It might seem a bit disingenuous, but, my reaction to the mythical ‘Will you be putting us in your novel?’ is a genuine No.
Not only because I’d so hate it myself. ‘Put’ into a novel, like a china ornament placed on a shelf? The outside of me: the way I dress; my (oh too loud, a friend said recently) voice, booming across a room; my love of cats; or my circumstances as the mum of twins, who though living in the midst of sophisticated intellectuals and academics, does not drink wine? Not the essential me. And, how stupid would I feel if, had I ‘put’ a friend or family person into a novel, when they read it, were upset, disgusted, or never spoke to me again? They’d have the right: we can’t know the inner selves of others, and a novelist, in essence, deals not in outsides but inner selves. And selves that fit.
It’s like a jigsaw: does this piece go there? Or are we forcing it in, to hurry up and get the picture done? ‘Putting’ a person (name disguised) into a novel, means fitting them into the plot. Each character has a shape contributing to the whole. No good trying to force Aunt Jane, with her lugubrious hats, her high-Tory opinions, her little Westie terrier, into your romance set in Cairo… though maybe your best friend, the academic historian with the banker husband, might fit your international crime story … but would your Australian cousin suit that cosy mystery set in Elsfield, Oxfordshire, in 1946? Like all misplaced jigsaw pieces, your real person who had that funny incident in the cafe will protest, by bulging, wobbling, becoming stuck at an awkward angle. Nothing else will go right until you take it out again…
Making a cake
Do you like to eat cake? If you’re putting me in your novel, (please don’t), you need to know that I enjoy baking, and eating, cake.
The creative process is like baking: the ingredients, the raw materials, are the real people we know and meet, the strangers on buses and trains, the acquaintances from the exercise class … then all this needs processing in our brains, maybe over years, decades. After mixing, the raw cake is subjected to terrific heat inside the oven. By the time it is cooked and ready to eat, who can tell which bit is flour, sugar, fat, egg … baking powder, a teaspoon of vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon? Or where those characters, busy interacting and unfolding their story, began?
Every novel is a mystery
So, whether a novel is crime, romance, sci-fi, adventure, it is always also a mystery.
As is the idea that your writer friend will put you in her novel (indeed, why you?)
Don’t be disappointed to discover you are not there. Or delighted that you are. Whatever has been ‘done’ to turn a gallimaufry of people into a set of characters was probably done unawares … and that one’s not you at all! Maybe all of us fancy a little adventure, a romance, or to solve a crime mystery? Are people maybe asking for a slot, when they act scared they’ll be put in a novel?
The key to how it’s done …
is observation. What goes in the notebook or sticks in the mind is observation of the how, not the what, of human beings as a species.
Just my point of view …
Two Writers whose observation of the species ‘human’ I admire:
Debbie Young, (an ALLi indie writer, and founder of the independent, Cotswold village based, Hawkesbury LitFest) for her wonderful ‘flash fiction’ books on twenty-first century living – try Marry in Haste for a humorous look at dating, deciding, and tying the knot.
Joanna Trollope, (well-established mainstream published, ‘She likes to tackle the apparently easy, but really very difficult subjects – how parents get on with their children, and vice versa – which many a lesser writer prefers to avoid.’ (Guardian Books, 11/02/16)). Whatever you think of her subject matter (upper-ish middle class …) admire her acute observations of small but telling physical actions … for example, a husband is behind his newspaper. The wife taps on the newspaper with a teaspoon to get his attention… not a ‘classic trope’ but a small action typical of that kind of couple.
(Photos: my copyright, please request permission before using)
I liked the analogy of the cake. Sue
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Another uncomfortable request that happens when people discover one is a writer: “Will you write my story?”
Often the person making the request has enough skills and talent to write it him/her self.
Reasons I don’t want to take on your project:
1) I don’t know your story well enought to do it justice.
2) I till take time to get to know you well enough to write the story–time I need to use for my writing.
3) You don’t lack talent–you lack confidence.
4) Ghost writing is a calling.
As with any talent, one must use wisdom, discretion and diplomacy when dealing with other people’s expectations. You have addressed a myth well.
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So true …
Love the idea of jigsaw people. It really is a patchwork quilt mix-up of so many things when I go about working up a character. Great post.
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Thank you, Francis!
What?? I’m not in your book after all? I’m outta here! Oh but before I go,
would you mind proofreading my mss for me, or maybe writing my story? m.