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The inaugural Tunbridge Wells Poetry Festival takes place 15-16th June 2018. I am delighted to be part of it through my association with Sarah Salway, an inspirational local writer and teacher, who has organised a ‘poetry trail’ from Chapel Place down along the Pantiles. Sarah persuaded shops along the route to display work by local poets for the duration of the festival. I was privileged to be commissioned to write for Arte Bianca, the fabulous Italian delicatessen, whose premises occupy the corner of Chapel Place.
If you’ve never visited this historic part of Tunbridge Wells perhaps this will inspire you to do so. You will be well rewarded for your efforts! Hope to see you there.
This article was first published on the Books and Me Blog of Ivy Logan. Ivy’s blog is packed full of brilliant advice – so if you are looking for inspiration just click the link to find all you need… Here in the meantime is my blog on weaving history into a book.
Every character in a book has a history. They are a product of it and it is part of them. It can be a completely fictional character or, as in a semi–autobiographical novel, based partially on facts uncovered through research.
History, either personal or chronicled, grounds a character in time, memory and identity. These overlap like rings to form patterns that your reader identifies with, directly and empathetically. It brings the character to life, and enables your reader to share their journey, their ups and down, crises and torments, happy and sad moments.
You can weave history into a story in two distinct ways.
The first is directly through descriptive passages of places, dates and events, but you need to guard against making it a dry factual record. Edit carefully to achieve a good balance of information that doesn’t overwhelm your reader and cause them to lose interest. More interesting is to slip in information while describing a building or place as it appeared at the time your story is set. Here is a passage from a novel I wrote about a young girl about to become a wardress in Holloway Prison at the beginning of the 1900s.
“Emma stood beside her Da and looked up, eyes flitting from one to the other of the winged griffins that brooded over the gates in front of them. She wondered what storybook they copied the statues from. Must’ve been a scary one ’cause both creatures ’eld a key and shackles. The words ’Olloway Prison always set alarms ringing in her head. Now she stood before the inner gatehouse, every nerve-end in her body at attention.”
A second, more subtle and interesting technique is to place indirect clues in the narrative. For this we have many tools at our disposal. The following are four writing elements that can help to accomplish this.
Personal history – how a character dresses, their dialogue, their diet, the work they do all indicate the era a character inhabits. Your character’s sense of humour is important since jokes and things people laugh at change over time. Slang is a brilliant marker. (For example, the word ‘dolly–mop’ was used in 19th century London to indicate a part–time female prostitute.) A good example of this genre is the novel Tapestry by Philip Terry. While Terry clearly signposts when his story takes place from the title onwards, the most striking aspect is the dialogue. He couldn’t have his embroiderers talk in the language of Norman England as no one would understand it. So he invented a dialogue that evokes the period which today’s reader can make sense of. In this way, he absorbs his reader into the occupations of the women he is writing about and forces them to share their daily concerns.
Social history – the manners and customs of a character’s everyday life, their views on issues that affect them, the laws they live under, the traditions they observe can all be woven together through dialogue or events. A character walking or riding a horse to a meeting in a tavern, or drinking from a rough jug, all provide clues that help the reader enter into and experience the world you are recording.
Family history – will touch on parents, children, friends, neighbours, and the work the character or their family does. An example is the profession of ‘upholder’, a term that relates to the craft of a specific era, and whose practitioners today are known as ‘upholsterers’. Census returns can be a rich source of such information. Personal relationships are important and revealing. One passage that particularly strikes me is found in Camus’ novel The Outsider. The opening three sentences pull you up short. ‘My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.’ These jejune ten words reveal in stark terms the history of a relationship.
Place history – landscape plays an integral role in forming a character as they grow within it. This incorporates elements such as the house they occupy, the countryside, their neighbours. To some extent this will overlap with social history, but it can be slipped in through a character’s thoughts. A brilliant example is the novel The Great Lover by Jill Dawson. A fictional maid encounters Rupert Brooke the poet in his home village of Grantchester, Cambridgeshire. Nellie, the maid, reveals Brooke’s growth as a poet and individual through opinions and ideas that Dawson took from his actual writings. Along the way, we get contrasts between upper- and lower–class life in Edwardian England. None of this is stated explicitly, but is revealed through the character’s reaction to where they live and the lives they lead.
The average reader will approach your book from their lived experience today. You need to capture their imagination and remove them from that mind set. You don’t want them judging your character from the lofty perch of now. You want them alongside the character, moving forward with them and identifying with their difficulties, entering into a world where chance and future hazards keep them gripped. You want your reader to feel that they are contemporary with your character to be part of their life and society. You do this by weaving the character’s history into the things they do, and how they live, talk and behave towards others.
Most of all in this process, don’t forget that writing a novel is fun and that you can be playful and honest about the fact that this is your version of events.
An amazing writing colleague has posted a series of author interviews on his blog. I am privileged to be included. The interviews are full of wisdom, hints and tips about writing. Whether you are new to writing or an experienced old hand, there is tons of helpful advice. The one thing I have learned as a writer is that I will never stop learning about writing. Follow the link below –
Writers are told to avoid using complex words when simpler ones will suffice ie instead of describing a character as a contumacious parvenu, describe them as a rebellious upstart. This piece of writing wisdom is based on the idea that complex words make passages slow or difficult because they break reading pace and rhythm.
As a general rule, this is good advice. However, a writer should not forget that context is everything and sometimes complex words are necessary to get a message across. A character is defined by his/her speech patterns, and words assigned by the writer must be appropriate to the person, place, time and situation. While it is good to avoid long-windedness in your writing, what if that is one of the chief characteristics of your character?
I faced this problem when writing about my suffragette grandmother. Norah was a wordsmith who wrote propaganda for the causes she supported. Her love of language and erudition were apparent in her writing, and to do her justice it was necessary to do the same.
In another scenario, I saw the phrase ‘contumacious parvenu’ used in a scene in a TV drama. The setting was an exchange, in a packed class, between a law student and a lecturer, a serving Judge. It went roughly like this –
Student – “Have you reviewed the ruling in Bloggs vs Bloggs as promised last week?”
Judge – “I regret not having the time, I had 130 cases before me last week.
Student – “That is unsatisfactory. Could you not have had a junior member of your staff research it for you?”
Judge – “I could, but that person will be as overworked as me and probably a contumacious parvenu like yourself.”
Student – “What’s that?”
Judge – “Perhaps you’d like to research it and tell the class next week. I’m sure you have the time, given your light study regime.”
As you can see, complex words were appropriately used to highlight the arrogant ignorance of the student. As a writer, you are in charge of your creation. Take advice on how to write, but remember that the full range of language is at your disposal to use at your discretion as appropriate.
Which type are you? Someone who trusts and believes people until they give you cause not to, or someone who approaches relationships with scepticism, waiting for proof that you are justified in bestowing your trust? I know which I am, and despite the occasional disappointment, prefer to trust people from the outset. Naive maybe, but it works for me. In this respect, I also operate on the dictum of Russell Lynes who noted that, ‘It is always well to accept your own shortcomings with candour but to regard those of your friends with polite incredulity.’
As fiction writers, we struggle with the gulf between reality and unreality. From the reader’s viewpoint, should our story be credible or incredible? Do we want them to be credulous or incredulous when they tackle our finely wrought scribblings? As a general rule, it is probably safe to say that if you write sci-fi or dystopian novels, you will tend more to the incredible, while other genres veer more to the credible. There is no absolute rule in this respect, but in attempting to hone our craft, we probably all experience the problem highlighted by David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas that ‘Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms around the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.’ How often have I sat writing and when I read it back wonder how it came from me, from my brain. But I know it did: I just sat and wrote it. The mind is truly a wonderful thing.
Good writers recognise the spectrum between our adjectives is what creates the tension that keeps readers engaged. The balance between fact and fiction, reality and unreality lifts our readers out of mundane everyday lives into worlds of hope, possibilities and enjoyment.
I, for one, am grateful to live in an age when we are swamped with reading possibilities and glad to be drowned in the deluge of material out there. In this sense, I take issue with James Russell Lowell who asserted that ‘Incredulity robs us of many pleasures, and gives us nothing in return.’ I live to wallow in credible and incredible books, which give much pleasure and everything in return.
How many types of curiosity are there? For now I propose two varieties. One relates to knowledge and our desire to understand the fundamental processes that affect our lives. The other relates to change driven by an innate impulse to improve the world around us. The difference between knowledge and change-based curiosity is not absolute. Knowledge-based curiosity helps us come to terms with our place in the universe while change-driven curiosity helps us deal with our limitations.
I am mostly concerned with change-driven curiosity. In 2004, John Updike delivered a lecture to students in which he noted that:
One of the problems of being a writer is that you don’t really provide answers…you provide more questions than answers and many of the things you write are things that puzzle rather than things where you have arrived at a conclusion…
I came across this pearl of wisdom whilst struggling to write about my suffragette grandmother, a lady for whom I have feelings ranged on a spectrum from admiration to incomprehension. Suddenly my attempts to grapple with her personality and career made sense, and I realised I would never fully understand what drove her, but that asking the questions helped me to accept her uniqueness and contribution to my life.
Change-driven curiosity comes from developing a mindset that looks at the world in a playful and creative way, using our intellect to expose sham and pursue clarity, even though these parade as abstractions that appear to slip through our fingers the closer we get to them. Possibilities and opportunities to grasp them come from the power of words to open the doors to imagination and beyond, and we should continue to grapple with them even as they elude us. As William Arthur Ward said, “Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning.”
It is our duty as writers to keep our candles burning as brightly as possible.
1. John Updike, “ENG210 Creative Writing: A MasterClass,” Lecture at Academy of Achievement 9/6/2004
The twenty-six letters of our alphabet are the writer’s basic tool and what a powerful versatile resource they are! Every book, document or piece of advertising that circulates in society is based on them. As a result they have a profound effect on our lives. This was brought home to me when I visited the British Library to see the WW1 exhibit – Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour. As I looked at the posters and hand written letters, the power of those twenty-six letters hit me emotionally. Inevitably it was the section on grief that I found most moving, particularly the letter from the young soldier written immediately before he went into action. Soldiers were encouraged to write these letters so that in the event of their death, families had a lasting memento of a fallen loved one. The letter on display, in beautiful neat handwriting, was full of love and longing for his family. One can only guess at their suffering when they received it, together with the news that he would never return.
If you haven’t read it you should get hold of My Dear, I wanted to tell you by Louisa Young. I attended a book signing for this novel and heard the author say that one of her inspirations had been the postcards given to soldiers to fill in to send to families after admission to field hospitals during WW1. The pre-printed postcards started ‘My dear _____ ‘ with a space left blank for the recipient’s name. There is an example on the back cover of the book. Looking at this example with its gaps for the soldier to describe his wounds as slight/serious (the relevant word to be crossed out) again brought home to me the power of those twenty-six letters.
I then visited the permanent exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat gallery. Here I saw the Magna Carta together with the notebooks of authors who have featured large in my personal pantheon. Writers such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Laurie Lee. Moving moments for me. But the display that impacted most were the handwritten lyrics for the Beatles songs. Here were bits of paper covered in twenty-six letters turned into words and combinations of words that had echoed through my teenage years, expressing longings and hopes I identified with then. I found myself pondering which had the most effect on history – the Magna Carta (admittedly written in Latin but out of which our current alphabet evolved) or Beatles song lyrics? Then there is the Bible and the conflicts and crises it has created throughout history, while at the same time bringing peace and strength to many who follow its teachings.
I found it impossible to come to conclusions. The book, poem or document that affects your life will be unique to you because you are unique. The power and effect of those twenty-six letters will be unique to each of us in turn. Now there’s versatility and flexibility for you!
1918 will see the anniversary of the granting of votes to women in England, which coincided with the end of WW1. This marked not just the end of the war fought in the trenches of Europe, but the end of the initial skirmishes between the sexes for women to be granted equal rights as citizens through the ballot box. The victory was only partial as full female enfranchisement was not to be granted until 1928. The role of WSPU suffragettes in that early struggle is embodied in the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst that now stands in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament.
Milicent Fawcett of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, known as suffragists, and Charlotte Despard of the Women’s Freedom League, also fought for female enfranchisement. Both ladies sought to achieve their aims through constitutional means and eschewed the militant tactics for which the suffragettes earned their reputation. Yet neither lady has been recognised with a statue in their honour.
Historians will continue to debate whether suffragette militancy helped or hindered the cause of female enfranchisement. Whatever view you hold, no one can doubt the courage of all the women who engaged in that struggle. As we approach the anniversary of this momentous achievement, we should remember and pay tribute to every one of them.