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.

 

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.