What do I know?

I’m back to thinking about weather again.  You might remember that’s how I started out last week, but I quickly moved on to other things.

So let’s try again.  Remember September?  I notice in the diary I’m about to put away that for the first five days of that month I wrote, ‘hot’.  This week I am, as I type, toasting next to a well-stoked woodburner, and my old Fahrenheit thermometer in the corner reads seventy.  So this room also, you might say, is hot and perhaps that covers the subject adequately.  After all, we’ve all experienced all kinds of temperatures and the writing rule these days is less is more, especially with descriptions.

We could be satisfied with memory and perhaps some photographs or pictures to trigger them.  That’s good, it’s what imaginations are for.  We take what we know and embellish it, recreate our own versions of events, scenarios, situations according to our own designs.  But, and there is a but, beware the chances of falling into cliché.  I’m not talking of language now, rather I’m thinking about how far the things that remain with us are universal.  Take summer time as a topic, for instance.

summer holidaysLet’s think about writing a description of a British family beach holiday.  You might include the sensations of being dried with a sandy towel, or the texture of gritty ice-cream, the call of seagulls, the sounds of fairground rides and the smell of fish and chips.  They’re all good, valid approaches, but what makes them specific, applicable to one particular place in time and space?  More importantly, how do you make the description your own?

Okay, you could just tell us, this is Bournemouth, Barmouth, Tenby, Yarmouth, Brighton or Blackpool.  Then again, perhaps the geography doesn’t matter.  If you’re writing a nostalgic piece, perhaps you are looking for common experiences. Fine, but surely you still want lively writing.  You want to intrigue your reader, to engage their attention.

Small children know the trick of that.  It’s the unusual, perhaps even the outrageous behaviour, that causes adults to turn from their conversations to what the child is up to.  That’s a good principle to remember when writing, because unless they’re related to us, most readers do have to be won over, by the power of our words to transport them from the present into another world.

I am on a beach.  I don’t know where – Southwold perhaps.  I am very small and wearing a blue ruched swimming costume, which scratches the tops of my legs and fills with bubbles of water when I go in the sea.  But I’m not in the sea.  I’m sitting on a big striped towel, shivering.  My dad is sitting beside me and I’m thinking how hairy his legs are, like gorilla’s legs.

So writes Leslie Glaister, from memory, in an essay for The Creative Writing Coursebook.  I don’t know about you, I’m hooked.  I both identify with this image, this moment, and am intrigued by the way she gathers together these so specific images to make them clearly only hers.

Sometimes, our recall can be precise enough for us to create something as specific as this.  Or as lyrical as Katherine Mansfield’s, At The Bay.

Very early morning.  The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist.  The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered.  You could not see where they ended and the paddocks began.  The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea.  A heavy dew had fallen.  The grass was blue.

I’ve never been to New Zealand, and yet the precision of these details makes me feel that I might have.  It also reminds me of other early morning views.

In both of these pieces specific, telling, details create convincing prose worlds.  It may be that you also are able to evoke a sense of specific place in your writing without too much effort.  How does it happen?  I think it’s through having an eye for detail, and here’s the bit where I link my train of thought back to the start.

I think I could write about a hot week in September, not because my memory is special, or my creative ability any better than the next person’s.  The notes made as I waited in a car outside a Portsmouth house on a Sunday afternoon are enough for me to recall the affects of that unexpected heatwave.  For a moment I forget the woodburner, and that it is evening.

It’s not important that I’ve identified a specific date, what worked was the process of keeping a writers diary.  It focuses my attention.  I observe my surroundings more closely, and instead of passing on, I’ve learned to record it.

My notes are rarely lifted word for word from the diary into a text, they’re a draft to be worked on.  What they give me are ideas and inspiration to translate into stories, or blog entries.

And that’s it.  Here endeth the lesson on Writers Diary keeping.  If you’ve not started one yet, I hope this might have helped convince you to sit down now and start by writing about the weather, whatever manifestation it appears in.

A Sense of Place

iron age round houseI was invited to a meeting at a neighbour’s house this week.  I went, partly, because I’m nosy.  It’s a big house, a designer construction, with high glass walls held up by steel RSJs (pillars).  It was the sort of building project that gets followed on TV design programmes, and starts people writing to their local paper with questions about whether it’s suitable for it’s location.

How do you live in a house with no blinds or curtains?  That’s what I’ve asked myself each time I passed it, especially at night, when the interior is lit.

A lot of us must be fascinated by house interiors, there’s so much of it in the media.  That kind of thing is meant to be aspirational, I suppose.  Being more of a muddler, when I flick through those magazines in waiting rooms, I like to imagine the householder dashing about gathering up and rearranging their belongings before the camera arrives, than to believe in either the immaculately clear surfaces or the artistically displayed clutter.

Pieter Janssens Elinga, Perspective Box.  1660 - 1680

Pieter Janssens Elinga,
Perspective Box. 1660 – 1680

Here’s the question I’ve been asking myself since my visit to the neighbour’s though, Isn’t where we live as significant an indicator of personality as the clothes we wear?

Okay, so most of us probably will never have a chance to express ourselves in such solid terms as my neighbour, but we all occupy a space somewhere.  How much of our lives we devote to our surroundings is one part of our stories.  What we do or don’t do to the fabric of our homes is another, whether that is in terms of cleaning, repair, decoration or even shifting furniture around.

We might not all realise it, but our homes are a tangible indication of our personality.  It’s all too easy to brush over this detail, and yet for most of us, mortgage or rent is a defining aspect of our lives.  It can dictate what we do for a living, and what we don’t do, especially with a recession on.  High-rise, semi, designer, bedsit or mobile home, these aspects too can be defining characteristics.  Do we conform to expectations, or not?

116So here’s a question to my fellow writers, when we’re writing about a character, do we think about where and how they are living?

I’m not advocating a broad digression  from your story with this.  Probably the facts won’t even make it into your final draft, but I were to ask you why your character lives where or as they do, could you tell me?

As for my neighbour’s decor, it was, of course, nothing like I expected.  I think I’d have been disappointed if it had been, after all, she’s not the character I’ve written into her house.

I’d like to recommend…

I’ve just been on a journey backwards and forwards in time between 1936 America and Manila in 1902 and 1936 thanks to William Boyd’s, The Blue Afternoon. It was quite a trip, all in all. Some stories the reader just hitches a ride on the words and enjoys the passing scenery. Not this one. I’ve been kept involved all the way, guessing about connections and murders, taking a new view of history, working out what’s going on, and why, and trying to second-guess how.

I’ve stood at the shoulders of an architect and a surgeon as they worked. I’ve experience the blue afternoonthe joys, frustrations and passions of different kinds of love and loss and colonial life. There was so much story in this one short novel it would be difficult to write a summary without giving away the plot, so I’m not going to attempt that. You can find one somewhere else, if that’s what you’re after. But my recommendation, whether you’re a reader or a writer is to try this novel yourself.

I’ve not read any thing else by William Boyd, so I can’t draw comparisons with his other books.  I can only say that here, I find good writing.

What do I mean by good writing?  Well look at the first sentence.

I remember that afternoon, not long into our travels, sitting on deck in the mild mid-Atlantic sun on a slightly smirched and foggy day, the sky a pale washed-out blue above the smokestacks, when I asked my father what it felt like to pick up a knife and make an incision into living human flesh.

It’s a little long by some standards, perhaps, but look what Boyd does with it.   Besides giving us a situation, a setting and an atmosphere, it gets me asking myself, who is remembering, and why do they want to know about ‘living human flesh’?  I’m only an inch into the text and I’m already preparing to turn to the next page.

I like a lot of things about this story.  Take, for instance, weather and scenery. Los Angeles, 1936, ‘was cloudy and an erratic and nervy wind rattled the leaves of the palmettos that the contractor had planted along the roadside.’ In Manilla, ‘Cruz’s house was a substantial stone building with a tiled roof, hairy with weeds, and a saffron lime wash on the walls which was flaking and dirty.’  It’s economical.  There’s just enough of a word picture for me to create the image: not so much that I’m struggling to construct an exact replica.

Go back to that first sentence again and look at how he constructs his images.  Ever heard of a ‘smirched‘ day before?  I haven’t, and yet put it with foggy, and I think I understand exactly what he means.  Like the wind in Los Angeles, which is not just ‘erratic’, it’s ‘nervy’.  This is what we mean when we talk about keeping language fresh in our writing.  I don’t think it’s forced, and it doesn’t need to happen in every paragraph, or even chapter.  Its effect is made, at least in part, because it is unexpected.

For me, ‘unexpected’ is the key to my enjoyment of this novel.  The story unravels slowly, truths are teased out by our narrator, and, for the most part, delivered in such a way that I do not feel cheated: by which I mean that the author has not manipulated events to achieve his goal.  Here, the twists in the plot felt feasible rather than engineered, even when they were surprising.  They arose naturally as a result of the characterizations.

Here’s a story with some big events in it.  Things that told clumsily could have looked contrived and ridiculous.  Instead, there was a sense of inevitability about the way they unfolded and the final denouement.  I don’t think I can give a higher praise than that the ending surprised, pleased and stayed with me, long after I’d closed the covers.

Magic Shoes

1920s ladies evening shoes, shoe ornaments, heels, dress.

1920s ladies evening shoes, shoe ornaments, heels, dress.                                                                (Postcard from The Shoe Museum, Street, Somerset.)

My nephew has a pair of new trainers that flash red lights in the soles when he stamps.  It turns out they’re too big, so his mother tells him she’ll put them away for a month or two, until he’s grown a bit.  Sam’s four.  He gets them back out to show us.  ‘Look,’ he says, turning them over to display a large red silhouette stamped in the treads. ‘They’re dinosaur shoes.’ His eyes are big and shiny, and his mum laughs.  They were the only ones in the sale, ‘Which is lucky, because he’s tried them out so much I could never take them back and ask for a smaller size now.’

I remember the first pair of special shoes I owned.  They were patent black leather, with a narrow buckled bar across the front and broad three inch heels.  I was about thirteen, and they were hand-downs from a more sophisticated cousin, but unlike the spiky court shoes I’d played dress-up in before, these matched the styles I had seen in my Jacky magazines, and they fitted.

My sensible, carefully chosen, flat shoes were cast aside along with all the warnings about broken and twisted ankles. I had a new view of the world, towering over my younger brother and measuring myself against mum.  I could be banned from wearing them to school, or ‘as best’, but nothing could stop me clomping around the house and garden in them.  The fact that nothing else in my wardrobe was suitable to wear with them didn’t matter.  In those shoes, anything might happen.

And lots of other things did.  I was still a child, not a fully fledged teenager, and heels do not suit tree climbing, long country walks or bike-rides.  One day, I was cleaning out the cupboard in my bedroom, and I pulled them from the bottom of it without being able to remember when I’d last seen them.  For a moment I felt the old excitement.  I polished them up with my sleeve, took off my shoes and socks and put them on.

They pinched.  There’s no give in patent leather, after a few minutes I had cramped toes and had to take them off.

As I threw them into the dressing-up box I pulled out some of those old pointy toed shoes I’d shuffled through my younger childhood in.  There were several pairs that fitted, but none that I could imagine myself in.

Soon after that I saved up enough pocket money to choose my own special shoes.  Perched on my wooden platform sandals I regained that view of the world from a different height, and I loved those shoes too, but not in quite the same way that those first, shiny black shoes mattered.

Sometimes important moments happen by accident.  Sometimes the importance of the moment fades within hours and we’ve moved on.  By this time next year, Sam might have forgotten all about the dinosaur trainers.

I don’t think Sam’s mum or my cousin could have guessed how much pleasure we would get from their gift.  Shoes, after all, are pretty much a staple item of clothing in the Western world.  Some of us might go barefoot for the summer, but it would take a hardened sole to survive our colder months, though I’ve seen pictures that suggest in times past they did.

We choose our footwear.  It is part of the outer-expression of our ideas about style, whether we claim to follow fashion or believe ourselves immune to its dictates. These are the basis of first impressions.  If it’s so in real life, how much more in fiction, where characters tend to have more extremes?

There are some lovely shoe obsessed characters, from Fairy tales, such as Cinderella, and The Red Shoes, to modern fiction, such as the stories of  V.I. Warshawski, bySara Paretsky and Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City), by Candace Bushnell.  Okay, so you don’t want to create a character-copy.  I didn’t think you would.

I’m just wondering, if I asked you about the first memorable pair of shoes your character had, would you be able to give me an answer?

Trade Report Only.

Trade Report Only, that’s the title of a cracking little story that I’m looking forward to sharing with the reading group later on today.  I’d never come across C.E. Montague until I opened up the Penguin Book of First World War Stories.  That’s not so surprising, since it seems that he’s primarily remembered for his autobiography, Disenchantment.  I won’t need to repeat the reviews on that, since apparently the title sums it up neatly, and you can easily find summaries of it on the internet.

However, on the grounds of the short story I’ve just read, I may have to add Montague to my list of authors to look out for.  I’m not going to sum up the story plot here.  That would definately be a spoiler, and I’m hoping you might decide to get hold of a copy of this to read for yourself.

Trees in the Fog,by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

Trees in the Fog,
by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

Why?  Well first, because as we head for the centenary of the outbreak of the war, why not try a prose account of it as well as, or even instead of, the more usual poetry.  But secondly, there are lots of literary reasons to look at this particular one, too.

It’s a first person narrative that was originally published in 1923.  Our narrator, the sergeant of a mining unit who have been posted to an orchard at the edges of the battle (no, this is not a story of the trenches) is an educated man, he is both sympathetic and poetic. Atmosphere, imagery, symbolism and classical and biblical allusions all come into play.

It begins:

No one has said what was wrong with The Garden, not even why it was called that name: whether because it had apples in it, and also a devil, like Eden…

Is it dated? Well, in the sense that the characters speak differently to the way we would today, yes.  Call me a purist if you like, but I prefer that.  I can never quite settle into historical fiction or faction where the characters have twenty-first century voices.  And in case you are wary of coloquial writing, don’t let that put you off, the dialogue, like the prose, is concise and  to the point, and is used sparingly.

‘Gawd a’mighty!’ Looker shrilled at the entry of Toomey, ‘if Fritz ain’t sold ‘im a pup!’

You can read this story for the plot, or like one of the war poems, you can reread and follow the treasure hunt. I promise you that’s well worth the effort.  I’m looking forward to discovering if the reading group share my enthusiasm.

If you never were in the line there before the smash came and made it like everywhere else, you could not know how it would work on the nerves…

The power of …

We were telling jokes around the tea-table, my nieces, nephews and I.  They were the old standards, mostly knock, knock jokes: Annabel.  Annabel who?  Annabel is needed on a bicycle;  Lettuce.  Lettuce who?  Lettuce in, it’s freezing out here.

The three oldest children all own joke books, and had memorised a good repertoire.   The youngest, who is just four, joined in with the chorus of cheers as we took turns.

Inevitably the pace quickened as we raced to get our chance at the easily remembered ones.  The noise-level increasing after each punch-line.

Then, amongst the cries of ‘Me, I’m next.’ And, ‘I’ve got one.’ Sam’s voice broke in.  He had been listening carefully. ‘Knock knock,’ he said.

He repeated his chorus several times before we managed to call a hush and respond, ‘Who’s there?’

‘Tractor.’

‘Tractor who’

‘A tractor and a trailer go out in the field,’ said Sam, looking round proudly as we began to laugh.

Encouraged, he made up another, and another, delighted with our delight.

When we moved onto the, ‘black and white and red all over’ ones, Sam quickly picked up the formula. Forget our blushing penguins and read newspapers, he took his turns and gave us first, ‘an orange’, then, ‘Postman Pat’s cat’ and ‘Scoop’ as his solutions.

There were no barriers to his inventions.  Although his sister and cousins are only a few years older, they had already forgotten going through that same process and made an enthusiastic audience.

I suppose you are wondering what it is I am writing about here?

I’ve been thinking about that as I put it together, and wondering how to draw this piece to a close neatly.  I suppose, as it stands it could be an anecdote, or perhaps a sketch…

It lacks a lot of the standard constructs we use to create story.  I’ve given no description, though I can see, hear and smell the scene clearly: the way the september sunset slanted in through a side-window to light up the serving dishes and bowls shouldered together on the large table; the emptied plates with their smears of ketchup, pickle-vinegar and chewed crusts and the noise as six adults and four children competed for attention.

It had movement too.  We fidgeted on chairs that were crammed too close.  Our feet tangled beneath the table as above it we passed dishes and cups.  Only Sam was small enough to roam, finding spaces to squeeze in between elbows and drive his Lego boat between the debris on the shiny table-cloth.

Do these details matter?

Depends on the writer, surely?

Why have I told you this?

Perhaps because I am in the process of working something out, and the best way I can think of to tell you is not by creating a fully worked out and rounded situation, it is by showing you some of the steps I have taken.  I’m not sure I’ve reached a neat conclusion, so I cannot sum anything up.

Should I have written it?

How could I not?

I suppose the more relevent question is, ‘Should I have posted it?’