Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – research sources for writers.

I have a 1907 copy of the Harmsworth Self-Educator, volume 6.  It’s a battered old thing, that seems to have spent some time in places other than dry, safe, bookshelves. The cover is not so bad as the interior, which is not just stained, it has several damaged pages.

For non-fiction, I do appreciate a straight-forward title.  The Self-Educator is a collection of harmsworth-self-educatoressays exploring ‘life’ in Britain.  I don’t think it should be called an encyclopedia, because apart from not being in alphabetical order, these read like academic papers.  There are 29 groups of topics, dealing with the sciences; commercial activities; arts, crafts, languages and academic ideas and theories.

Who was it for?  I’m not sure.  It doesn’t seem child-friendly to me, but am I a good judge of what Edwardian children did, and liked?  I think of it as a paper forerunner to internet search engines, except that this one is all edited by one man…Arthur Mee (1875 – 1943).

It’s not a book I turn to regularly, but when I do, invariably I find something intriguing.  Do you know, for instance, how an Edwardian child should be dressed?  Dr A. T. Schofield can tell you:

There can be no doubt that a combination flannel undergarment is the most comfortable and healthy arrangement. The legs especially should be protected in this way, and not left bare, or with a single covering of cotton.  Over this, with girls, there should be a stout quilted bodice on which the lower garments can be buttoned, and then a plain dress over all.  The stockings, of course, are suspended.  A sailor costume is a capital one for girls, and very healthy.

unidentified-poss-claptonImagine getting strapped into that lot every morning.  No doubt such padding would have been useful in the winter, but Dr Schofield doesn’t offer a lighter selection for the summer.  Perhaps that’s why there are no smiles in this picture.

Children’s dress…should not leave any vital parts exposed.  Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten, and children are dressed in a fashion that their parents would not endure for a moment if applied to themselves.

photo-from-daily-mail-article-about-slum-childrenI wonder if he’s referring to the families struggling to survive?

It’s worth stating the obvious here, and remembering that in research, we should always find more than one source.  The clue to the Self Educator is in the title and sub-title.  It is an aspirational book, ‘A Golden Key to Success in Life’.  The only reference I’ve been able to track down about the original cost of the volume, was that one bookseller had marked it up for ten shillings and six pennies.

Given that in 1910 the Army and Navy Stores were selling a ‘maids’ dress for four shillings and one penny, and that an average income for a working class family would have been around twenty two shillings per week, it seems likely that only well-to-do households would have owned any of these volumes, let alone all eight.

However, Mr Mee does provide the kind of detail that makes me think that in a post-apocalyptic, google-less situation, these volumes might be useful.  In this copy alone are instructions on how to farm, build houses, make cheese, manufacture hats, weave cloth, lay out a sewerage system, run a bank, speak Esperanto, play a flute, sell postcards…  Is there anything else necessary to keep us safe, dry and entertained?

Actually, looking again at some of those stained pages, I wonder if this copy was kept in a workshop.  The worst damage does seem to be in some of the applied chemistry sections.

I feel a story forming.

 

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More thoughts on saving drafts

I write, I write, I write…what a buzz when the words flow.  The story unrolls under its own momentum.

Okay, in the cold light of the next day there may be changes to be made, that’s fine: that’s good.  It’s part of the process.  Do you know what?  I love that too.  It’s a different way of working, a honing of story and meaning.

scissorsHowever, let me put in a warning, a statement of the obvious, if you like…it’s fine to take those virtual scissors to your electronic document and snip your words into shape, but don’t – please DON’T – throw them away.   Okay, it seems like you’ve finished with them.  Despite the fact that some of them were beautiful sentences, you’ve concluded that they don’t fit.

Resist your minimalist instinct to be tidy: practice hoarding.  Make a copy of your draft, whether you’re working on paper or on a word-processor.  Make copies of each of your drafts – yes, I do think there will probably be more than one.  Because, if you see your words differently after a twenty-four hour break, imagine how it will read if you leave it for another week or three.

henri-matisse-travaillant-a-des-decoupages-geants-nice-1952-photo-helene-adant-1The thing is, in two or four weeks, when you look at your work again, what if you decide you shouldn’t have cut those lovely words from your first draft?  In my experience, if they’ve been destroyed, they’ll haunt you.  You’ll never quite feel that you’ve managed to recreate them, no matter how many hours you struggle to.

Time will pass, and your temper may fray.  This scenario can cause a writers-block.

Think what happens if, on the other hand, you can go back to that first draft.  There is your deathless prose, ready to be reassessed.

I learned the hard way, but it is now second nature for me to save my drafts. In case you don’t, I’m recommending it.

matisse-cutting-paper

*Photographs, Henri Matisse making paper-cut-outs.

The writing tight-rope

Here’s something that I believe: the best stories are written from the heart.  But what does that mean?

tight rope 1Statements like that are tricky generalisations.  Do I mean that writers should always have an important message to deliver?  No, and no again.  Save me from fictional lectures, please.  That’s a blog post for another week.

What I mean by heart are stories that are rounded in the way that E.M. Forster said good main characters should be.  To read them is to exist within their reality , and when I’m writing, that’s what I aim to achieve.

Transporting someone into my fictional world is a tall order, so like most other writers, I’m always looking for the best way to do that. One method most of us try at some point is to draw from our life experiences: it fits with the principle of “writing what we know”.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Well Hilary Mantel’s take on this is worth considering:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

The heart, she seems to be saying, should not always translate directly onto the publictight rope page.

I take the warning.  I’ve dusted off an old diary and am seeing for myself that feelings at their purest, or rawest, tend to generate ‘purple’ prose, or poetry, with plenty of comic potential.  At the time it was a form of therapy, now it’s something I could transform: I can see segments that would help to round-out my imaginative writing.

It’s good to think that some of that energy might be used constructively after all.

 

 

 

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Thoughts on wording titles.

I’ve spent a lot of time this week tinkering with the title for a new writing course that will be linked to the local archives.  We’ve done the meetings and the discussion about content, structure and themes, so you might assume that the title would be the easy part.  Surely not something that will involve a Ping-Pong of emails.

Thesaurus.yourdictionary.com

Thesaurus.yourdictionary.com

But how do you sum-up a seven week course in half-a-dozen words?  I need something eye-catching, enticing and straight-forward that says this is a hybrid course and it will include writing, researching and ideas for ways to present family history and memoir so that it can be easily shared.

I’ve learned to be careful, ever since someone turned up to one of my ‘Creative Writing’ classes expecting to learn about Calligraphy.  They stayed, to see what I meant by creative, and re-discovered an enjoyment in word-play that had lain dormant since their schooldays, but I can’t depend on such a lucky outcome.

Titles, I find, are tricky.  From the readers point of view they are a promise, an enticement to take part.  They can be direct, as my class titles need to be, but even then, readers might not take the same meaning from my combination of words that I think I’m providing.  So, I negotiate with my WEA organizer over what we think my words suggest.

Ambiguity can be interesting and desirable in fiction.  In reading groups we spend a lot of time investigating the way a title works on a text.  Where does it come from?  Is it directing us to read in a specific way, for instance, pushing us towards a theme?  How does it fit with the content: complementary or contrarily?  These are only some of the questions that have come up in relation to the James Joyce, Elizabeth Taylor and W. Somerset Maugham stories I’ve been discussing with groups over the last two weeks.  They’ve been fertile questions, raising diverse opinions and re-assessments and sending me back to read again something I thought I’d already got to grips with.

So it makes a change for me to be working on making my meaning simple, instead of looking for something witty and capable of multiple meanings.  But I’m glad we have now found the necessary words.

 

 

Reading for writers

This week I’ll be starting the first of my Autumn reading groups.  Lined up are two seven week courses and a day school, that means I’ll be discussing one novel and two short story collections.  So alongside the writing groups that are already up and running, I shall be kept on my toes until Christmas.

I’m not complaining.  What I’ve found is that these two strands compliment each other. At the first pass, I read purely as a reader, sometimes racing, at others, taking my time, getting involved with the characters: enjoying the story.  It’s only after that my work starts.

I see my role as being to help a group get the most from what we’ve read.  Book coverSo I re-read the set piece again, and again.  I delve into the writing, asking myself questions about what the author was doing.  I construct a series of feasible theories, suggestions, questions and ideas that I can take in to intrigue and challenge my class with.

The interesting and intriguing thing about this process is that no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve investigated a story, when we get into a group discussion, we always find at least one more way to read it.  Everyone brings their own understanding of the world to a story, and sharing our ideas opens up our perspectives.  I learn loads.  

book coverReading groups seem to me a perfect place to investigate how skillful writing can be. I take my discoveries not only into my own writing, but also to my writing classes.

Lessons learned about writing after sending letters of protest to the government.

I sent two letters of protest a couple of weeks ago, one to the chancellor, the other to my MP.  You may remember in a previous post I drew your attention to some huge cuts being proposed for Adult Education.

This week I received replies.

Spotlight on lemons

Spotlight on lemons, by addictioncam@gmail.com

I hadn’t expected either recipient to do an about turn, or ask me for more ideas about how Adult Education classes work on all levels.  I hoped to get a thank you: a recognition that I’d felt strongly enough to spend time thinking through some arguments.

My first reply came from The Department for Business Innovation and Skills.  It began:

…the chancellor receives a large amount of correspondence every day and is unable to respond to each one personally. As Further Education (FE) falls within the policy area of this Department, your correspondence has been passed to this Department and on this occasion I have been asked to reply…

My correspondent, Richard O… then proceeded to quote figures and facts regarding government policy on apprenticeships, traineeships and English and Maths.  All of which are undeniably important, but have no connection with the points I made in my letter.

My MP’s reply arrived a day later:

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do agree that Adult Education is very valuable. ‘

It was a good start.  If only he hadn’t gone on to say, ‘and is not only vital for assisting people make progress into work, but also adapt to changing job contexts.’

The truth is, that he wasn’t agreeing with me.  He was using a phrase from my letter as a spring-board for spouting party-line.  And, since I had no opportunity to interrupt, I got harangued for a further four paragraphs.

I’ve been trying to put a positive slant on my frustration with these answers.  What I’m most aware of is feeling some fellowship with the political journalists who regularly and patiently take part in this kind of jousting.

Did either man bother to read my letter?  It’s impossible to guess.  Somewhere, I assume, someone has added another mark to a list that keeps the score on protest letters received, and that, after all, was why I wrote it.  So despite my irritation I do still feel that we should sit down and write a letter.

Looking at this from a writerly point-of-view though, brings me to a more positive frame of mind. I’m reminded of two things.

Firstly, never get on a soap box to tell a story.  Writing that makes overt political points is boring, unless the reader happens to already share the writer’s views.  No doubt my letter was as tedious to the recipients as these two directives were to me.

Secondly, when writing dialogue, remember that characters don’t always respond directly to what has been said.  Conversations often happen at cross-purposes.  Such circumstances illuminate character and can be amusing.

The only decision I’m left with now is whether, having been handed two lemons, I make a cake or a cocktail…

lemon cook book

prohibition-cocktail-guide-1920s-1353946008_b