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My muse is in trouble. I’ve spent too long on facts and analysis. I’ve been longing to tackle the Mountains Novel. Ideas and concepts have been piling up in my files, but now my schedule allows, I can think only of practicalities. My notes look like thin nonsense. I only see the problems, not the potential.
This is what going to press – and e-press – does to your mind. These last weeks have been an orgy of pedantry. Crossing ts and eyes, making an index, hyperlinking cross-references, obeying format rules for the kingdoms of Smashwords, Kobo and Kindle, typesetting the print version, reading onscreen proofs, tweaking bloopers and doing it all again. Oh and I updated the typography in the original NYN too, so that was an extra dose of proofing.
Now, my muse is on strike. I need to win it round. Here’s what I’m doing.
Forgive me if this is the most air-headed post I’ve ever written. I’m blowing away cobwebs.
While finishing the characters book, I’ve been making a list of novels and memoirs that have resonated with themes and ideas I want to explore. There’s nothing like a good book to make me want to write.
Compiling a soundtrack
Of course I’m doing this. I’ve been collecting CDs for the car, tracks for running to. Some of them have come from others’ Undercover Soundtrack posts, especially Andy Harrod, Tom Bradley, Timothy Hallinan and a few that are currently a secret between me and the writers because they’re cued up in my inbox. Thank you, guys, for opening the windows.
Rediscovering the fun in connections
A few things that real-life friends have introduced me to these last few days that reminded me how homo sapiens is an endlessly creative creature.
I have a friend called David Bailey. Yes, like the famous photographer, but not related to him. Though my David Bailey does like taking photographs. And he’s spent much of his life grappling with scornful titters if he wields a camera. Last year, he was recruited for an advertising stunt, where 143 chaps called David Bailey gathered in London, put on black polonecks, were trained to use a whizzy camera and had to spend the day using each other’s middle names.
2 People lying down in Mexico
These foolish things inspire me. There’s something so adorable about found similarity. A brigade of guys called David Bailey, identically dressed and taking pictures. Ten beautifully composed photos where everyone is, curiously, lying down. I could detonate with delight. If I wrote a thousand words I wouldn’t get to the end of why.
Whether your art is visual, written or sonic, so much starts by taking the world and seeing patterns. Repetitions. Connections. One idea boldly takes the hand of another, one character finds another, one event causes another, fractalling on and on. They look as though they should always have been joined. I won’t make the same connections you do, and that’s what makes your art yours and my art mine.
What inspires you?
(Aside: this week, some of the David Bailey pictures are being sold on ebay to raise money for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity. One of them is by the very famous black polonecked David Bailey; one is by my black polonecked David JW Bailey, who also provided the pics for this post. See if you can tell which is which)
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Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.
Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.
So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.
Good first-hand accounts
Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.
There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.
What everybody else may already know
If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.
Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.
Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.
Befriend an expert
Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.
You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.
What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!
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The strangers in our photos are the people we aren’t meant to notice. People we tune out. I never gave them a thought until I read about the British artist Polly Morgan, who, when she was a kid, went through family photos, cut out the walk-ons and made a gallery of them on her bedroom wall.
I love this idea. All these anonymous people, abundant as traffic and trees, appearing accidentally in our private photos.
Who were they? While Dave and I walked around the museum, the lady with the handbag was on her own mission. She had a chain of events that brought her to this place and she went on to do something else afterwards. What was it?
A lot of writers talk about the inspiration they get from overhearing conversations, but it seems to me that a picture is worth a thousand eavesdropped words. And our photo collections are full of them. The person you didn’t intend to take a picture of is waiting to have their story told.
This is a fun exercise on its own but it can also be useful for our novels. When we’re writing, we often find we have gaps in our story world. Sometimes we need a ‘purposeful nothing’ for a character to do when they go for a think, or a route they can take to the gym or work. Insignificant, low-key stuff, but if it’s not there the world of the story doesn’t feel real. The characters live in a void like an undecorated film set.
In daily life, we get used to tuning things out, which is perhaps why writers have to make a special effort to flesh out a world. Who’s that in the distance, sitting on a bench in a square in Fontainebleau, while I’m taking a photo of Dave? Did she need to think of a place to meet her best friend for a heart to heart?
So I’m ending this post with an exercise. Either tell me how you find insignificant but useful locations, or write a little piece about the strangers in the pictures here. Or do this with a pic of your own on your blog, link to it here – and we’ll all come and see. (That’s a blog hop, isn’t it? Never done one before.) Let the fun begin…
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- The first book on writing I ever read – what was yours? May 29, 2016
- ‘Freedom, broken ties and love outside of marriage’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Diana Stevan May 27, 2016
- Avoid this plotting pitfall when writing drafts at speed May 22, 2016
- Avoid dumb plotting errors – post at Alliance of Independent Authors May 15, 2016
- ‘When I feel like a storm is raging’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephanie Carroll May 12, 2016
- How to become a ghost-writer – post at Jane Friedman May 9, 2016
- One for them, one for me: ghost-writers and their soul projects May 8, 2016