Writing What We Know – Two: a demonstration and an exercise.

mantellearning to talkI’ve been reading Hilary Mantel again.  Not her Thomas Cromwell novels, but that other matched pair, Giving up the Ghost, and Learning to Talk.  The first title is her memoir, the second her collection of short stories.

Why together?  Well you don’t have to, but from the aspiring writer’s point of view, to read them both is to take an armchair masterclass in story techniques.

In a literal sense, part one of the memoir is littered with musings about Mantel’s approach to writing techniques and advice:

Plain words on plain paper.  Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a window-pane.

…Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours.  Work out what it is you want to say.  Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can.

Watch out though, as usual, that dark sense of humour is never far away.

But do I take my own advice?  Not a bit.  Persiflage is my nom de guerre.  (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s élitist.)  I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes.  

This is a writer in conversation with herself.

Besides, window-pane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness.  Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

I’ve been so busy with the highlighters that my copy is in technicolour now.   I used this text to teach a memoir course, so I had to focus closely on the tricks she deploys, the repetitions, the withholding and careful dissemination of information, the shifts in viewpoint and narration.  Until I picked the book up again, I’d forgotten just how jaw-dropping her technique is.

Put that aside though, it’s not what I’m thinking about here.  Instead, sift out the content and incidents of her life: where she grew up, and what it was like there; the members of her family and their circumstances; who her neighbours were, and how school and religion impacted on her life.

These are the kinds of facts that we should know about our fictional characters, these are the things that help to make them seem as if they might be walking in the real world, somewhere.  Or as if we might know them, or maybe even be them. But how does the writer begin to build a world like that?  Why am I discussing a memoir in terms of fiction?

Because I’ve been reading King Billy is a Gentleman, the first title in the short story collection.  Its narrator is a boy who grew up in a village outside Manchester.  His father disappeared and was replaced by a lodger. The lodger was an engineer, with prospects, who moved them to a better house.

‘You must never tell anyone we are not married,’ my mother said, blithe in her double life.’

In the memoir, Mantel writes:

My mother stops going out to the shops.  Only my godmother comes and goes between our house and Bankbottom.  The children at school question me about our living arrangements, who sleeps in what bed.  I don’t understand why they want to know but I don’t tell them anything.

There are other parallels we could trace in these two works, but I’ll leave those for you to discover.  What interests me now, is to think about how the short story might have evolved from the memoir, and whether we can learn something to apply to our own work.

You might argue that Mantel has just incorporated some of her memories into a story.  I’ve not asked her, so I can’t swear to this, but reading the story reminded me of an exercise that’s an old favourite of mine. I call it the What if…’

Think back to the earliest years of your life, and list some of the events that stand out in your memory.  Concentrate on one.  Close your eyes and try to recall as many details as possible about that time:  what you saw, thought, touched, tasted, heard and felt.  Who else was there?  What did they look like?  What did they do?

Now write it down.  Hopefully, as you write, new memories will occur to you. Try to cover at least one side of lined A4.

Read it to yourself.

Now put that page aside and ask yourself, ‘What if I’d been born the opposite gender?’

Re-imagine that event you’ve written about with this alternative you as the central character.  The ‘real’ memory is already pinned to the page, so you’re free to embellish it now.

Begin to write about what happens to this ‘alternative-you’, in the first person.

In case you think this is just another of those daft parlour game type exercises, here’s an excerpt from an introduction in Mantel’s story collection:

In her memoir she explains how, after her strange childhood, she came to be childless herself, and how the children who never saw the light have trailed her through the years and become part of her life and her fiction.

It’s not always easy, inventing people.  Sure, you can pluck a name out of the air, or stick a pin in a directory, but then you’ll need to fill it out.  Central characters, we mostly agree, should be rounded.  Which does not mean we’re thinking in pounds or kilos, of course.

Characters need an inner life. They need thoughts, ideas and emotions.  The reader should believe that characters exist beyond the boundaries of the page, that they have a past and future, as well as a present.  That’s quite a challenge.

So why not give yourself a head-start, and use what you know?rounding out characters

4 thoughts on “Writing What We Know – Two: a demonstration and an exercise.

  1. Another thought provoking piece Cath.
    I’ve read ‘Learning to talk’, on your recommendation I believe, but not the memoir yet. It seemed to me there was a strong sense of authorial involvement in many of these short stories. As you say, without asking we can never be sure of this and anyway, isn’t the uncertainty part of the package, the thrilling mystique of wondering. Writing what we know can only make our writing more authentic though. No matter how thorough your research, it will always struggle to be a substitute for actual experience. Ergo it can also be a challenge to make your writing believably fictitious. As the admirable Mr Michael Carson once advised me, ‘be careful not to reveal too much of your authorial petticoat!’ It is worth noting that his most famous trilogy, Sucking Sherbet Lemons etc, is about a young man growing up gay and Catholic, an experience which, I suspect, was not a million miles from Carson’s own. (Lame use of cliche there.) Or maybe it doesn’t matter if a reader senses our involvement. Could the realisation enhance our reader/writer bond? Is there any longer a place for the ‘death of the author’ in our reality-obsessed society?

    Some time ago, I read an account of Hilary Mantel undergoing a major operation at the same time as I went through my own. She had a much harder time with post-operative complications but I shared every moment; the dark drug- induced dreams, the intractable pain, the miserable belief that it would never end. The window, you might say, was smear free; the language direct and accessible. What Hilary knew was what I knew and the joint knowing was a connection and a comfort. And if I had been reading about a fictional character having the same experience, I’m pretty sure I would have felt the same.


  2. Hi Ruth,

    Thanks for the compliment. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

    Funny you should mention dead authors, I’ve just been discussing that theory with my reading group. It made for a challenging ten minutes, and then we moved on. (Shades of TCP! Whoever would have thought that I’d be applying Theoretical and Critical Perspectives in my own right?)

    As you say, it’s a reality-obsessed world, and what a credit to the authors who have created something so believable we want to know more. So I agree with you, it doesn’t matter, but as an old friend of mine liked to say when we’d rambled on together for an hour or two, it makes life interesting.

    Incidentally, there’s a fairly thorough account of Hilary Mantel’s medical history in the memoir, if you want to read more, (perhaps what you read was an excerpt) and you’re right, it’s direct and accessible. Although for someone as squeamish as me, parts of the account made the reading a challenge.

    I guess for a writer, nothing is sacred. Read that and quiver, all friends and relatives out there!


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