Writerly myths: ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

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!’

working in the SHLet’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.

Jigsaw People

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.  

cake for mondfulnessThe 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)

A Writer’s Christmas: Perspective of 2015

So, the writer is about to write the Christmas Letter.

The quite awful letter where parents kvell (I think that’s the word?) about the kids and what’ s

What the kids are doing ...
What the kids are doing …

been achieved in terms of music lessons, exams, and riding a bicycle.

Only, as the kids are grown, thankfully we don’t need to join the party with that kind of stuff …

DO I FEEL ‘CHRISTMASSY’ AS CHRISTMAS APPROACHES?

No. Advent maybe: the time of watching and waiting.

 

Once, we waited through Advent, we kids, trembling, almost, with expectation. Gradually the seasons drew nearer and nearer, until on truly magical Christmas Eve, the tree was bought and decorated. We looked up to see the Star of Bethlehem shining once more in the navy-blue sky, over a frosty city, smelling of coldness and slightly of petrol.

The Tree in today’s front room … (2014)

My earliest Christmas memory is of  standing in the doorway of our front room, and there was this amazing sight: the Tree, covered in glittery ornaments.  They turn, slowly,  reflecting the many-coloured lights. The room’s suffused with a gentle warmth. I am stunned, totally. Later, at my grandparents’ house, aged six, I  feel no disappointment or surprise on waking briefly, the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to see a parental hand placing presents in my stocking.

After all, presents are presents, and secrets kept on both sides so as not to disappoint have a thrill of their own … We all kept up the myth, and Father Christmas/Santa continued to get his sherry and mince pie for many more years.

But oh how deep the disappointment of not having a ‘part’ in the nativity play, aged 7.  Oh how much I wasn’t deceived by the sop of being ‘in the choir’! Of course, we were obviously a group of left-overs … (was that really true? Probably.)

Everything was one: cards, tree, F.Christmas/Santa, crib and carols
Tree Decorating

With the King’s Carols on the radio, as time went by, I got to decorate that tree and create the magic. Cards were displayed on every flat surface: bookshelves, windowsill, mantlepiece. Mostly of the famous mother, father, and baby-in-the-manger. Simplicity, profoundity, replicated in many styles and colours. Delicate Medieval drawings from Books of Hours, High Renaissance paintings, bright sketches by contemporary graphic artists.

The Magi travelled on camels towards a stylised Middle Eastern town, pictured against a pink dawn (or sunset).

The shepherds on their hillside were staggered to witness an angel choir.

Christmas past, the years of security.
P1180619
Star Cookies

This year the cards we’re sending will be secular: winter scenes, robins, holly, nothing ‘religious’. Not the crib, the stable, the angels, or the little family far from their home: even though that’s horribly relevant this year. It’s all come apart: not personally, but societally. The base-line story, from the food, presents, parties, and Santa (secret or otherwise). Yes, I enjoy the annual get-together of neighbours, and the once–a-year catch-up with far-flung friends and relatives. But  the excess, and expectation to indulge, first communally and then, in the sudden silence of the most magical day, as a nuclear family. It’s no self-indulgent sadness, that today (having avoided the BBC News today) my priorities have been to get some work time, and some peace (to study the MSF website as it happened).

 It’s  more about the watch and wait of Advent
Knitted Nativity
Knitted Nativity

Whatever will be happening on 25th December this year, a pretty picture of the Holy Family isn’t going to solve anything. Realistically viewing the world in December 2015, Christmas pictured  in those cards is a reassuring myth. Maybe I should’ve designed my own cards: ruined apartment blocks, broken lives … under the Star of Bethlehem. That was the reality for Mary (a terrified teenager) and Joseph and their baby – blessed to be born alive, and grow up healthy, despite soon to be running away from a hostile government. The Middle East isn’t a pretty town against the sunset … most of the world isn’t – some of us live in a little corner where some of it is, sometimes.

Flying Angel with Tinsel

Which is an eternal (or at least historical) truth. As a group, humanity hasn’t yet solved the problem of living together under one sky as one global family. Card-wise, there’s the problem: the traditional Nativity scenes belie what we see on the News, turning religious Christmas into a false promise.

As a fiction writer, I engage with this as I work on the third story of the Mullins family. Love You to the Moon attempts at exploring what we mean by love … and what love gone wrong looks like … as in the wider world, everything moves nearer and nearer towards what feels like a worse chaos, rather than a new beginning.

Watch, and wait …

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it …

(This was written during the Commons debate 2/12/15:  #prayforSyria)

 

 

 

 

For my NaNoWriMo Writerly friends

Nearly every writer friend seems to’ve joined the NaNoWriMo challenge this year – November being a drear month of dreich weather what could be more attractive than sitting down at a computer and banging out a story? (I think they’re using it to try out fiction writing, see if they can do it for the long haul … real novel production takes a lot more work and time than this!)

Here’s a poem I wrote to celebrate Writers’ Month:

(illustrated by our elderly cat, Moppet, who’s become a bit ‘Nanna-like’ lately) 

Moppet takes up knitting
Moppet takes up knitting

Nana’s nicked my pencil, she’s casting on her words
Nana’s doing Wry-Mo, that knitting fun for nerds
She thought it was a needle, she was in such rush,
To get her novel started while there was quiet and hush.

Nana’s cast on lots of words, and she’s working really hard
Nana wants to win this year, she’s really quite a bard.
We creep around like mouses, and make her cups of tea,
We tell her ‘don’t procrastinate!’ when she goes for a wee.

We’re buying all her shopping, we’re making all our beds,
We’re being very very good, and keeping down our heads,
‘Cos otherwise, as Nana said, we’ll get put in her book,
And then we might get deaded, all drownded in the brook.

She’s reading up policing, she calls it ’cosy crime’,
She writing, writing, writing, creating all the time,
The words just grow an’ grow an’ grow, a long long trailing scarf,
We’re not allowed to read it yet, we hope it makes us laugh.

When at last the WryMo’s over, and we get our Nana back,
We’ll know that it’s been worth it, despite the sweat and flack,
And the cheesecake for our breakfast, and the prayers for something else!
And she’s done her fifty-thousand, so her banner will unfurl
With ‘I’m a Winner!’ on it, in plain and rib and purl,
(Though cable’s really suited to her wry and twisted style.)

For Nana’s knitted up a book, which we never thought she could
Without the NaNoWriMo to keep her working like she should
And I shall need my pencil back because you see
I’m knitting up a novel now, as wry as it can be.

CMHW 11/15

For non-writers, YOU CAN READ ABOUT NANOWRIMO HERE

Writer’s retreat – 2

Writer’s retreat: creativity and ‘procrastination’?

Still I have not begun to plan the 3rd novel in any detail … the merging or not of the Mullins family saga, and an unfinished piece from 2002 may work … but then again, it may not. Procrastination would be putting off the decision: this is plain waiting on what the decision might be.

The importance of spending time doing something else, somewhere else

wedding cake
The Wedding Cake

Meanwhile, we have been travelling. Back and forward in time. There was the family celebration, and a journey to the North East. Family wedding is a place for meetings, re-connections, informations and speculations. 

  • We met second cousins we’d never met before …
  • We reconnected with those we’ve kind kept up with … how much had we all changed?Underneath, are we the same?
  • We gathered and exchanged and updated information: where do you live, what do you  do… what will you do…?
  • We speculated: who looks like whom?  Do we all match? What is the genetics here: the relatives who all go back to Charles Henry Wheeler and Maria Sakilariou, who married in 1873 at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Sophia in London through their son Alexander … and the name (Alexander) is still passing along down, from my grandfather to my father, to my cousin (the bridegroom), and my son Alexander Ben …

It was a grey day, the day before the Summer Solstice. In honour the occasion, the sun appeared almost last-minute, late afternoon, and everyone relaxed.

All very appealing to the fiction writer, this exchange of news over time, and possible futures, and how lives pan out … and where they meet and where they come from (Charles Henry from Hampshire, son of a harness and saddle maker, Maria from Tinos, Greece, lady’s maid to Euphrosyne Cassavetti, of Constantinople and Kensington).

  • We enjoyed, we celebrated, we ate and we went our ways … Family Saga reality show carefully recorded for future viewing … We took a day exploring the area, and the countryside and a walk in the late evening sun.

    soltice evening walk
    Summer Solstice Evening Walk near Durham

Sharing time with friends

And then, back home, there was a meditative walk with friends, (‘the family you choose’ – is that a quote?) 

  • There was our Franciscan friend, who lead the walk. And the friends who turned up: all of them the least expected: one back from California, one a busy Mum almost straight from the surgery to the meadow, and two who’d read about our group and come along to find out more.
  • We walked and read and thought about St Francis’s Song of Creation, and the sun and the moon were both there, white clouds floated in a wide high evening sky, joggers ran past and couples pushed babies in buggies … we stood on dry ground where in very wet seasons a lake forms and migrant widgeon over-winter in hundreds. And there was a poor stiff stoat lying prone on the allotment, symbolising how all creation eventually returns to the earth.
  • And we sang Francis’s Song.
  • I took no pictures, which is unusual for me, and was a deliberate kind of discipline.

The light bulb moment

For some reason, today the idea, the link, the merging, slipped itself into my brain. You could do it this way, with those characters …holiday reading

Meanwhile, hoping to read widely while on holiday … more wild and woolly creepy crawlies to blog about later! (Be prepared for caterpillars, and snails …)

The Kindness of Friends

Before the old blog collapsed, I was thinking about the kindness of  friends.

It all began with someone else’s blog (as it often does), posted on a Facebook site I belong to, where authors share about writing. The blog piece had all of us rather quirky writers sharing how it is for us who don’t fit the standard ‘genres’. I was still working on my Charlie Hebdo response (I may bring that over here later, or I may decide too much time has gone by and reactions have become old news).  But I think the discussion was kicked off by this  a guest post by Vivienne Tufnell on Philippa’s Rees’s blog ‘Involution’  (http://bit.ly/1DTFgfJ).

Since when the phrase The Kindness of Friends has stuck around in my head like a catchy title for Alexander McCall Smith, something to partner  The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, and The Lost Art of Gratitude. An introduction to McCall Smith’s lighthearted wisdom was the kindness of a friend during a time of loss and sadness,  and now we have a whole host of them  in our bookcase.   McCall Smith books

Without the kindness of friends, I’d probably not have moved from writing articles to writing novels: way back when a friend gave me that push of confidence, and showed real interest in what I wrote, books began appearing on my doorstep. Slightly unusual books, books which made you laugh or smile but carried deep and honest assessments of human nature and human predicaments. Books which encouraged my sort of writing, the kind I wanted to do.

Years before, the kindness of friends had assisted my flight from a perfectly frightful flat-share at Uni. Details apart, one of the horrible things was, the flat was in somebody’s attic, which three of us shared, and we had no front door. The landlady’s cats had a nasty habit of coming upstairs to poo underneath the furniture in our rooms … and once the dog came and deposited a present on one of the beds (not mine).  Friends, once they heard, came with a car (rare for students to own one back then),  we bundled my possessions into it in plastic carrier bags, paid the rent up and did a flit. That of course has nothing to do with  writing, though it may get into a story one day.

spike on bookcase
Spike files himself on the bookcase, among the research

Not that I don’t love cats: cats with clean habits and outdoor toilet ideas. Spike is a close friend: a ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’ and  possibly has a story in him too.

 

j,n, & Dad
Our twins, long ago

Then there’s the kindness of friends who love to push a pram with your twins in it when they go to collect their kiddies from school: my New Zealand friend got to revisit her maternal baby-instincts and I got an hour off in the afternoon. Mummy-stuff indeed. And my more recent Hong Kong friend, who lived next door for a year with her family, and was always up for a mug of tea and a chat. The weary writer and the weary, breast-feeding mummy ‘chewing the fat’ in her rather chilly, rented house. The kindness going both ways.

So when creation’s by the mind, and the book’s our baby, is there a kindness of fellow-author ‘friends’?

Despite talk about jealousy and competitiveness of authors, about ‘trolling reviews’ on Amazon, our discussions around  reaching readers with books that defy genre-typing engendered posts written with enthusiasm and encouragement. Comparing our experiences, sharing what works.  A counterbalance to the thriller/crime/sci-fi mystery guys’n’gals whose sales top the lists. ANd followed by a rather splendid review of my first novel, Baby, Baby (Hodge 2010, available from the website (http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/home/) (or Amazon, p/b or Kindle).

Technology is neutral: how we use it is not.  The Alli site members’ group  (allianceindependentauthors.org/) proves the kindness of friends can exist across the net : sharing ideas at every level from newbies starting out to experienced authors who sell in large numbers. Even support themselves by writing. Sharing advice, frustrations, thoughts, guest posts.

Virginia Woolf 1937
Virginia Woolf 1937

(I wonder if Virginia Woolf would have lived longer if she had had a virtual band of fellow-writers displaying the kindness of  e-friends?)

A friend closer than a brother...
A friend closer than a brother…