Lessons learned from Edna O’Brien’s short story, The Connor Girls.

It begins with a hook. The kind of line that is simple, yet resonant with promise: To know them would be to enter an exalted world.

The second line begins with another ‘To’, and lets it echo, twice more. This is a lesson in how to use, rather than misuse, repetition. It might be called playful, it creates a lyrical effect, but this is also devious.

That ‘it’ draws me in. I share with the narrator an imagined idea of moving, step by step, closer to ‘them‘. ‘To open the stiff green iron gate, to go up their shaded avenue, and to knock on their white hall door…’ She yearns to make that journey, while I am additionally intrigued by her desire. Who is this ‘I’?

It’s not just the rhythm of her writing that draws me, those few precise details are enough for me to hold an image of that house. Despite the importance of this place and these people, to the narrator, and the concrete precision of the images she supplies, the details are sparing.

What she gives me is a flower garden with fountains, a water-lily pond, and monkey-puzzle trees. The quantity implied in these three features suggest wealth and land, but the narrator allows us to arrange them.

I’m certain that if Edna O’Brien and I sat at opposite ends of a table with crayons and paper, we would produce very different images of the setting, even while we included the given details. Hers might be the origin of this story, but while I read, the picture is as I see it.

I am transported to Ireland, in the first place, because I know Edna O’Brien is an Irish writer. If I hadn’t at the least suspected that, my version of this house and garden may have hovered above a number of countries, as I gathered clues. Luckily, this is only the first story in a large collection published under the title, A Fanatic Heart. The back cover promises me:

Love and loss, the villages and countryside of western Ireland…

Had The Connor Girls been presented in a cosmopolitan anthology, following stories by, for instance, Margaret Attwood, or Carmel Bird, I don’t think I’d have made a confident guess about nationality until near the end of the first paragraph. That’s after I’ve been given the gossip about the major, and how his son died.

Not even their tragedy brought them closer to the people in the town, partly because they were aloof, but being Protestants, the Catholics could not attend the service in the church or go to the Protestant graveyard, where they had a vault with steps leading down to it, just like a house.

Is that, or is that not, a beautifully balanced sentence? It’s distinctive, confiding, gossipy and laden with social and political colour.

If you liked that one, try this:

The Connor girls were not beauties but they were distinguished, and they talked in an accent that made everyone else’s seem flat and sprawling, like some familiar estuary or a puddle in a field.

We’re in the second paragraph, near the bottom of the first page, and the narrator has mentioned friends from Dublin. I can set my house down in southern-Ireland. I have no named district, but if I hadn’t known before how to colour this setting, I do now.

I’m drawing from memories of a too-brief stay that took in glimpses of the country between the ferry port at Rosslare, and a birthday party in Meath. What struck me was the quality of the light, reflected from the verdant landscape. At last I understood why Ireland was always referred to as green.

Add to that scenes from films and tv shows; images from paintings and photographs, and imaginings raised by other Irish and Anglo Irish writers. Behind O’Brien I seemed to see William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen, particularly, The Last September.

Am I thinking all of this as I read? Of course not, I’m submerged in story, and the flashes of connection are fleeting. I compare it to moments in my real life, when despite apparently total involvement in an event, my mind draws links with parallel experiences.

I’m not sure if it is either possible or desirable to write without connecting to previous fictions. There are people who aspire to, but I wonder about what kind of writing that could be.

A Farmstead by John Luke, 1928

You want to write? Dare to dream.

creating-charactersSitting on the decking at our Dartmoor holiday cottage, overlooking a verdant village, on a balmy September afternoon, I chatted across the fence with our temporary neighbour, Janet.  ‘You’ve got to enjoy your work,’ she said.  ‘I loved being a care assistant.  Going home at night knowing that you’d made at least one person smile that day.’

Janet’s a doer.  She’s just finished redecorating her hall, and is about to mow her lawn.  The garden is immaculate, and colourfully planted.  She’s always busy.  Tonight is quiz night, it’s, ‘a bit of a laugh, I go with my sister, she lives in the next village, so I pick her up.  She can’t get about much, with her hips.’

Janet’s a fiction, a character I’m putting together as I write.  She has a story I want to tell, but I don’t know it yet.  The things I do know are accumulating.  Some of them contradict what I thought I knew, and so I’m adapting my ideas.  For instance, her hair has fluffed out from short to long, from neat to artfully dyed and sculpted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter about something so superficial, and maybe I won’t be including that information in the final version of the story I write.  But I need to know it.

Janet is not a figment of my imagination, I’m dreaming her into existence.  I care about her, and the things that she cares about, and if I do this well, when I’m finished she may make you smile too.  This evening, when she comes out of the back door, in her black lace blouse, sharp black trousers and her neatly painted face, you will glance up from the Devon Life magazine you’ve been flicking through as you wait for your tea to barbecue, and wave.  ‘Good luck,’ you will call.

Janet will give a cheek-lifting smile, and hurry across the firm dry lawn to ask what’s cooking.  ‘Smell’s good,’ she’ll say, rising on tiptoes to look over the fence. ‘What are you planning for tomorrow?  Weather’s looking kind.’

She’s taking her granddaughter into Exeter in the morning, for a hearing test.  ‘But I expect I’ll see you in the evening.  Don’t get lost on the moor, or go shaking hands with any ghosts.’  Then she’ll adjust her hot pink pashmina around her shoulders and hurry down the garden to her honeysuckle covered car-port.  Her white blonde hair glows in the dusky shadows as she moves round to the drivers door.

From the decking we watch her drive out of the cul-de-sac and onto the narrow lane.





I’d like to recommend…

…Roald Dahl.  He never seems to have gone out of favour in the children’s market, but when was the last time you tried one of his adult short stories?

Most of them were televised for the long-running Tales of the Unexpected (TOTU)show.  That series made quite an impact when it first aired, in 1979.

It wasn’t just the catchy tune, with its suggestion of sex, violence and the supernatural, the stories were, as the title makes clear, cleverly twisted.  They were a challenge, a tale that seemed to be moving towards an inevitable conclusion only to be turned on its head at the last moment.

It seemed like the whole country must have been tuning in for them.  ‘Did you see..?’ we asked each other in school, at work and on the street. ‘Did you work it out?’

We were fascinated, hooked by the package. What would happen; how could the character possibly overcome their crisis?  It was great entertainment.  For a while it seemed like we couldn’t get enough.  Series two and three followed.  At first they were all Dahl’s stories, but gradually other writers of the same vein were introduced.

In those early weeks some of us were so fascinated that we bought the books and read ahead.  Even when I knew the outcome I watched them.  It didn’t matter that the situations and settings seemed to be looking backwards, so much of what was on our TVs was doing that in less entertaining ways.

What worked for TOTU were the twists.  Even though we knew they were coming, most of the sudden reversals were neatly set up rather than tricks.  The clues were embedded in the early stages of the story as casual asides, snippets of information that seemed no more than added colour, until the conclusion was achieved.

Take Parson’s Pleasure, a story about Mr Boggis, an antique dealer who ‘always bought cheap, very very cheap, and sold very very dear.’  His clients are those who lived in, ‘comparatively isolated places…large farmhouses and …rather dilapidated country mansions’.  Because these sorts of people are a ‘suspicious lot’, Mr Boggis decides to disguise himself as a Parson.  He carries a business card:

                                      THE REVEREND

                            CYRIL WINNINGTON BOGGIS

President of the Society                                In association with

for the Preservation of                                      The Victoria and

Rare Furniture                                                     Albert Museum.

to give his story credibility and is careful never to park his large car where his victims might see it, as it wouldn’t fit the character of an impoverished and respectable Reverend.

The story begins with Mr Boggis driving along enjoying the beauty of the countryside.  His name, you’ll note, is remarkably close to the word ‘Bogus’.  He is full of optimism.  The weather is suggestive of a good summer to come, and the village he’s heading for is easily reconnoitered because it’s in a valley below the road he’s approaching it on.  From his high vantage point he can map out in advance which houses to try, and see the best place to park his car conveniently close but out of sight.  He has, it seems, an almost omniscient vantage point, and starts from a position of power, in that he is keyed up with his past successes.

While he can see only opportunity, we, the reader, are already anticipating a reversal.  It’s a beautifully layered opening.  Dahl has arranged all the information we need before us, neatly interspersing the necessary exposition (explanations) between segments of action so that the narration moves us forward in neat arcs of drama.  I won’t spoil the ending, if you don’t know the story.  Read it, or watch it.  You can do either on the internet.  I can give you the Youtube copy, but you’ll need to use a search engine if you want the text, as I can’t seem to upload it.

I hope you do read it.  Wonderful as the dramatized version is, the benefits for the writer come from looking at it in word form.  Only then can you fully appreciate Roald Dahl’s artistry.

The twist-in-the-tail story has a long and chequered history.  While several writers have excelled at them for a while, many have floundered.  I think this one is a fine example of what it takes to write them successfully, but be warned, write too many of the same strain and you’ll soon wear out the reader or viewer.

The TOTU series may have stretched over nine sets of series, but I suspect I was not the only viewer who was drifting away long before they were halfway through those years of shows.  Even the unpredictable becomes, in a sense, predictably unpredictable if the template isn’t varied occasionally.