Steps forward, steps backward

I write this on the day I heard the sad news that Ursula K Le Guin has died and, once again, I think of journeys. She told us it’s ‘the journey that matters, in the end’ (The Left hand of Darkness 1969) and I’ve reflected on that many times over the years.

When I was fifteen, I kept a notebook (what would now be called a writer’s journal, I suppose) and filled it with words. My own writing, then, was mostly poetry full of the anguish and passion of youth, but I also copied onto its pages anything that moved me or resonated with my teenage brain. I was already devouring anything I could find in the school library written in the eighteenth century, and poems ruled my heart.

When I emigrated to Australia sixteen years ago, just a single packing box was lost during the journey and my notebook was in that box, but I still remember with great clarity the power of one particular line and the way it made me feel when I first read it. The long poem it came from was called ‘The Journey’, written by Charles Churchill (1731-1764) and I copied the seven words so they were alone on the page.

‘I on my journey all alone proceed.’

I wasn’t the only teenager ever to feel the grip of disillusion and isolation even in the company of friends but I do remember, as I wrote the words, the sudden conviction that whatever might lie ahead in my life, the steps in that journey were mine alone to make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of those same words and felt very connected to the girl who found a personal truth in a line of poetry. I don’t think of it now as a sad concept, because the years since then have been filled with friendship and love. It’s more the idea that, in the end (even if we happen to be surrounded by family and friends) the choices made, in the moment, belong to each of us. I’ve learned that there was always more in that line of poetry than I realised when I was fifteen. The journey is so many things.

When I write, each day can be a long journey, and so can just one page. Sometimes even a word, if it’s a hard one to find. A single moment can move me from one thought to another, changing the direction of everything.  And each time I sit down at my desk, and wonder whether doing something else might be a better idea, what I choose to do is the next step.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the main character in the novel I’m writing at the moment has a habit of counting her steps. Towards someone, away from something, nearer, further away. Steps forward, steps backward, but always proceeding in life. Like a story.

The skating minister: how I found a protagonist

This is the story of a protagonist and how he found his way into my imagination.

In late 2014, I had the bare bones of a new book, the themes and basic structure. I had the main characters too, but I still knew very little about them. I was really challenging myself when I suddenly decided to make the main character a man. Would I be able to look at the world through his eyes, think his thoughts and speak for him through the dialogue? How would I get to know him well enough to write convincingly?

On a visit to the National Gallery of Scotland, in Edinburgh, I was blown away by the amazing collection but there was one portrait that I didn’t want to walk away from. The moment I saw ‘the skating minister’ I knew I’d found the man I’d been trying to picture in my imagination for weeks. Everything was right: the subject was the right age, born in the right year, and he was painted in Scotland. I thought about that painting for months and when I looked at it again on the Internet, back at my desk in western Australia, I began to get to know my fictional character better.

I was spending time randomly doing research for the book while I worked on self-publishing and marketing ‘Georgiana Molloy, the Mind That Shines’ and I was still not sure whether or not to start work on a new piece of writing that would keep me busy for at least a year.

In November 2015 Mike and I went to Sydney for a few days and I met with Alex Craig at Picador for the first time, to finalise details of the new publishing contract for ‘Georgiana Molloy’. Right after that meeting, I walked with Mike across the park to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see an exhibition I’d read about and was really keen to see. It was called, ‘The Greats’ and all I knew was that it included some of the most famous paintings in the world. As we walked into the foyer, I went cold, on the hottest November day in Sydney for twenty years. The skating minster was everywhere around me, on enormous posters, on every display area and on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue. I’d had no idea, until that moment, that all the paintings had been loaned by the National Gallery of Scotland, and that the painting by Sir Henry Raeburn that had captured my imagination had been chosen as the main iconic image.

The Reverend Robert Walker, skating on Duddingston Loch, had followed me from Scotland to Australia and I stood in front of him once again and stared even more closely. I bought his face on a T-shirt, on a bag, on a postcard and even on a case for my glasses.

I knew then, without any doubt, I had to write the story of my fictional David Dennisoun Sinclair. The portrait gave me most of the important characteristics of the man I came to know well over the next two years. He had once studied to become a minister of the church. The black clothes he wore for the rest of his life would contrast well with another main character who dressed very differently. The painting itself gave me one of the most important scenes in the story, too. And there was much more.

While I was writing and redrafting and editing, I looked at the skating minister every day, pinned next to my computer. Writers work in so many different ways and what works for one doesn’t work for another. I know that, for me, a character that has its roots in something real – even just a place, a name, a face – is what makes me want to write. If someone is real to me, they matter.

Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch
Sir Henry Raeburn c1795
Attribution:Henry Raeburn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Research for writing 2: THE TEXTURE OF LIVED EXPERIENCE

The writing has been going slowly during the last couple of weeks, not because I’ve been slacking but because I’ve been researching more than usual as I write. It’s a reminder that research, for a writer, is so much more than checking names and dates and background events when drafting the plot.

I’ve been reading more than usual as well. I’m writing in a genre that’s new to me and I learn from the books I really enjoy as a reader. It’s all there on the pages, how to do it well. Sometimes, how to get it wrong (for me, anyway) is there too, and I learn from that. I’ve realised that the way a writer uses their research, the way it lives and breathes in the story, very often makes the difference between a book I can’t put down and one I struggle to stick with past the first chapter.

When a show house is ready for viewing, the designers ‘dress’ the rooms for the public, to make them look lived-in and attractive: scatter cushions, vases, books on the coffee table, magazines by the bed and pictures on the walls. And yet, somehow, nothing looks real. The appearance of human habitation has been dropped in and it doesn’t fool anyone. Nobody’s home. The same thing happens when the outcomes of a writer’s research are scattered like those cushions, placed deliberately to add the sounds and smells and sights of a particular historic period. The name of a song popular at that time, the title of a book that was being read, the name of someone who was in the news, an apparently casual reference to something topical, dressing the spaces. It all adds up to an effect that’s attractive, just like the ornamentation in a show house, but it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t take you into the minds and bodies of the characters living there.

Hilary Mantel has said that the job of a novelist is to ‘recreate the texture of lived experience’ and, from my own reading, that doesn’t happen when historical authenticity has been injected into the story in the redrafting. I can only say what I know about my own writing but for me, research is as much a part of the writing process as it is part of the preparation for writing. It takes a long time to understand the world picture of the lives lived by my characters from the past. When I write about them, or find the words to let them think or speak, I need to know what they care about, what they fear, what makes them laugh. I agree with Hilary Mantel when she says it’s time to write when you ‘not only know what your characters wore, but you can feel their clothes on your back’.

Sometimes I feel that slipping away from me and that’s when I have to step back and re-immerse myself in the world my characters inhabit. What’s available from a free Internet download is varied and surprising. My protagonist is nineteen years old in the chapter I’m writing at the moment, and the year is 1798. I’m reading the same stories she read in women’s magazines that year, studying the newspaper cartoons she saw that caricatured politicians and well-known people. I’ve spent several hours reading a cookery book published that same year, which helpfully includes advice about how to maintain a household, including how to remove bed bugs from a headboard and how to use wet sand to clean a kitchen floor. I’m reading poetry published in monthly magazines, newspaper reports and, more than anything else, the advertisements, those self-contained little stories that reveal so much about what mattered to men and to women. It’s not a fact-gathering activity. It’s a method of transportation through time and I can feel myself shifting back into her world. The cotton cambric on her back feels light, flimsy, too cold on a day like this. Discomfort.

‘Research is not a separate phase from writing. There is no point where the writer can say, “I know enough.” Writing a novel is not like building a wall.’

The quotations are all from the fourth of Hilary Mantel’s 2017 BBC Reith lectures, ‘Can these bones live?’ broadcast by BBC Radio 4 and available as Podcasts

Pleased to meet you!

It’s been happening again, that thing.

I’m sitting at my keyboard, thinking I’m writing a novel and doing what authors do. Managing the plot. Creating characters. Making things happen. Deciding who does what and why. After all, it’s fiction. Then, even as I type the words, I become an observer. Forced to stop my silly game of authorial control, I see what really happened, like playing the action on a DVD. They show me what they did, the people in my story, what they said, they even hint at why. Now and then I’m forced to watch, helpless, as someone I wasn’t even expecting walks in to the room bold as brass, someone (I now realise) who will be essential to untangling the mess of motivations and situations I plotted (Ha! Ha!) when I wrote that first plan a few weeks ago.

I don’t spend much time scanning social media but even my quick, half-awake early morning visits to Twitter reveal that I’m not the only writer to experience this phenomenon. But I still don’t understand what’s going on. I’m more convinced than ever that I don’t write what I make up. I write what I’ve already watched taking place. After a few lines, I close my eyes and just wait to see the next bit of the current scene, with no idea what might happen. Of course, I decide which episode I’ll watch (‘I need to write the bit where…’) but after that, it’s all down to them, those people I thought I’d just made up, conjured from the rich tapestry of stereotypes who populate my imagination after six decades of story-reading. But it turns out they’re real, my characters, they have lives and they want me to get the facts right.

They have names, too. Between you and me, it’s a bit creepy sometimes, the way it goes. Today, for example, a new character has just joined the story, a cook who worked for a family in London in 1799. I didn’t know she’d be arriving. She’s a very minor character (at least, as far as I know at the moment but she might have more to tell me) and I needed to know her name. That’s it exactly. She really did have a name and it’s not for me to just make one up. I did what I usually do, and looked for her name. Sometimes it’s the parish registers I go to, for the right place and the right years. Today I knew I’d find her in the trial transcripts for the Old Bailey in London. I scanned down hundreds of names until I found her. There she was. Poor woman stole a loaf of bread while she distracted the baker by discussing the cost of cooking a gooseberry pie in his oven. But it was definitely her.

Mrs Whiskin, pleased to meet you, after all this time. I look forward to getting to know you.

 

Research for writing 1: DISTANCE NO OBJECT

I’ve been thinking lately about the many different ways that research contributes to my own writing. There’s been a lot on the social media landscape about the ways other writers use research. In reality, it can be a very expensive process and can seem problematic or impossible if it involves travel.

I gave a talk this week about the research behind my last book, a biography of 19th century botanist, Georgiana Molloy, and just yesterday I had a completely new kind of research experience so I think the time has come to say a bit about what all this means to me. Research is so much a part of the work I do, so embedded in my writing and thinking, that this blog will probably have to be a two-parter!

In the early days of the research for ‘The Mind That Shines’ I occasionally had to travel to the UK for work and it was a chance to do first-hand research in the archives at weekends while I was there. I even travelled to the places where Georgiana had lived in London and Scotland, though time was seriously limited by my budget. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know I emptied my bank account for a train ticket and the cheapest hotel in town to see a diary in the north of England the day before I came home to WA. I realise now that I might have been able to apply for a grant to support some of that decade of research but I was happy just to follow in Georgiana’s footsteps while I was on that side of the world. My husband spent his weeks off – for years – in graveyards and museums in lieu of holidays and I’ll always be grateful to him for his forbearance.

Time has moved on. The research question comes up again and again. I’ve finished work on another story set partly in Jamaica in the late 18th century. I’ve never been there. I’m retired so now I have all the free time I ever dreamt of but a research trip for that book was financially out of the question. So, I used first-hand contemporary accounts, available free online, and immersed myself in descriptions, diaries, letters. I read for hours and hours until I felt as if I knew the place. I could feel it and smell it. Perhaps not the same as a visit but perhaps even better – I needed to know what it was like to be there in 1790.

Today, my new ‘work in progress’ is set in London in the early 19th century and it involves a true crime. With a list of vital documents in the archives there, papers I needed to see, I felt blocked in moving any further with my writing. A long-distance trip to the UK is out of the question. How many of us can choose to travel interstate, or even further afield, just to do research for a book?

But there are ways! A generous friend who lives near London agreed to take up the challenge of finding some old documents for me. Yesterday, as she worked her way through the archives on a sunny London morning, I spent the evening here in Western Australia receiving the photos she sent through, document by document, just as if I was there with her. It was a thrilling experience to see the clues I’d hoped for, popping up on my computer screen as the answers to so many questions– perhaps even more exciting than it would have been to be there myself. As the words appeared, things I hadn’t anticipated became clear and brought tears to my eyes.

It was Miranda’s first go at archival research and I’m happy to say she enjoyed it very much. Actually, I think that’s an understatement. She was moved by the closeness old documents can give us to people who lived in the past “I must say it is VERY exciting to hold something that may not have been read for 200 years. You do rather feel the ghosts.” She was in awe of the amazing knowledge the archivists have. “They were so incredibly knowledgeable and good at their job.” I saw her connection to the story growing as her emails came through. “It’s been really enjoyable so far! And very different. It’s everything you expect it to be but 100% more.”

So, if you really want to write about a place you don’t know from personal experience… If you want to see a document that’s hidden away in a library somewhere… If you want to just know what it’s like to stand in a particular place, far away, and your finances don’t smile back at you…. Don’t give up, at least not until you’ve explored all the research pathways that could take you there in other ways. It’s obvious that the first choice for all of us would be to make the trip, feel the paper, see the landscape, touch the bricks. But if that isn’t an option we can travel in other ways. We have imagination and when that merges with careful research, distance does not have to be a barrier. Other writers may feel differently, and I can only pass on my own experience, but I hope these thoughts might be helpful.

 

Learning to write

In a blog about writing and being a writer, it’s well past the time for saying something about READING and being a reader. It must be thirty years since I first heard the phrase ‘the reader within the writer’ and I used it often as a teacher of writing but it began to feel like such a simple, obvious concept that it eventually dropped off my radar, replaced by other, newer ideas.

In the last year, as I struggled with writing in an unfamiliar genre, managing the voice of an 18th century male protagonist, I found myself to be the learner once again. I examined every paragraph, every line, every word and tried to work out what works and what doesn’t. What’s good and needs to stay just as it is? What’s okay but needs different words or a different sentence shape? What’s awful, too repetitive, too weighty, too light, too obscure, too detailed?  There are writerly decisions to be made with every tap of the finger on keyboard. Deciding what to say next and how, which words to use and how to shape them into chunks of meaning, all that affects not just the content of my plot but also the style of the whole manuscript, the pace of it, the mood and colour of it, the things that are left with a reader long after they’ve finished reading.

So, I’ve been learning again in a big way, learning more about writing and trying to understand what makes really good writing so good.  What I’ve found – and I know it’s just a personal thing, this – is that if I can’t work out, at least in a simple way, why something I’ve read is really good, I don’t stand a chance of writing something that good myself. I don’t believe that the best writing happens by accident. At least, not the kind of books I enjoy as a reader. When the words demand to be re-read and read aloud, when I want to lay down in the words and breathe them in, I usually have the feeling I’m enjoying the results of an author’s hard work, their time and effort and skill and not just the quick’n’easy out-churning of their talent.

I realise now, more than ever, that it’s the reader in me who sits and tap-tap-taps every day at my desk. I admit now that I try to write what I’d like to read. Over and over again, I read what I’ve just written out loud to ‘hear how it reads’ and I find it’s the best way to spot the stumbles and repetitions and weak bits. With every word, I have to satisfy me, the reader.

When I feel really stuck, I sit down and read for a few minutes. I pick up a book that I love as a reader and remind myself what good writing looks and feels and sounds like. Last year, my go-to Good Book was Lucy Treloar’s wonderful Salt Creek’, a place where I soaked up the very best of dialogue, description and action. Sometimes it was a reminder about the effect on me – as a reader – of the juxtaposition of long and short sentences, the way Lucy created a reading rhythm.  Sometimes it was a lesson in how to develop character, lightly and unobtrusively by weaving thoughts, memories and feelings into narration. And more…

There have been many other great books for me since I’ve been working on my own manuscripts and I discover new things about writing from all of them. There will always be something to learn. In the last few months, I’ve been excited by authors who do different, surprising things with historical stories. Books I’ve read lately, like Sara Schmidt’s See What I Have Done’, make me want to shove myself out of the comfort zone and write in braver ways.  I’m just finishing the research for something new, something that I guess will take me to the end of 2017 at least, and I’m planning to try something that, for me, will feel really different. I know it won’t be easy and I’ll need to choose a couple of good books to sit on my desk, sustenance for the many moments of frustration and despair. One thing’s for sure, the more I read, the better I’ll write.