9

Story Ideas and the Benefits of Bedside Stories

This month the Round Robiners have been asked to ponder where our story ideas come from. At this point I have a confession to make – I am simply rubbish at stories and in no way would I consider myself a storyteller.

Collective gasp!

Well, you may ask, what the hell are you doing calling yourself a writer then? And a writer of fiction to boot.

The truth is, I’m an ideas person. I love concepts, and science, and the way the truths of previous generations are overturned. I love that this inherently means that many of the ‘truths’ of our generation are likely to be overturned too. We live with uncertainty every day and one moment’s event – a car crash, the death of a husband and breadwinner, the onset of a disease, coming into money suddenly – can change how we see the world forever. I also love to explore psychologies and how these kinds of event affect people – how different people react to different situations.

So I suppose I often start back to front. For instance the book I am working on now started from the idea of exploring how a person’s world contracts when they are living with a progressive illness. There was a concrete beginning to this when a close friend was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and suddenly his world was turned upside down. Mix this in with my interest in the role of caring for someone – something that has been close to my heart since my mother died and left my father struggling with dementia, poor sight and cancer – and there was the germ of a story theme, but definitely not yet a story.

Other aspects of my stories might come from real events. The day before I went down to London to meet with my new agent was the day of the Westminster Bridge terror attack. As I travelled down on the train, the events of the day before stayed in my mind. I walked through the streets to the agency’s office and was really struck by how calm London felt just 24 hours later. Cue the invention of another character who had been caught up in the attack – and the exploration of how this impacted on his family.

Combining my themes and ideas into proper stories is the big problem I have. My very first novel, which I now see as a training ground for my writing, took two autobiographical events and framed them into a story. One event was a holiday travelling round Scotland by train – the landscape really spoke to me and it felt healing in a powerful way. So I combined this with a character who was grieving the loss of her baby and threw in a stranger for her to travel with. I still love aspects of this story but it fell down because I hadn’t got to know my characters and their motivations properly – there wasn’t enough of a goal or driver to the story and the characters were not engaging enough. Maybe one day I’ll return to the basics of this story because I still love the premise and it also seemed to appeal to the agents that I sent it to.

I suppose one of my problems is that I am very much a literary reader and writer. A lot of my favourite books do not have the normal hooks and peaks and troughs of the page-turners that publishers are looking for. I admire prose that is dense and poetic – that appeals to the senses and the intellect at the same time. Yes, you need to ground it in stories and characters that we care about, but the atmosphere of a book is really important to me. That’s why, in the novel that my agent is currently seeking a home for, the landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens became a character in its own right – I even plotted it a ‘storyline’ for it within the book.

I love history, too. My current book takes a character who has Multiple Sclerosis and sends her travelling to the places she had previous worked during an acclaimed photojournalist career. I was delving into the history of Bosnia and the conflicts of that region, looking at the events that brought down the Berlin Wall. My agent warned me of the dangers of getting too distracted from the narrative drive of the book, and I think she probably caught my writing-weakness head on – I can get too absorbed in the detail and forget the real goal of my protagonist and the need to keep a momentum leading towards this.

So, maybe I need to go back to the simpler stories that my mother told me as a child. The ones she would invent as she went along to the light of my favourite bedside bunny lamp. She certainly held my attention, and I remember some of the tales she invented to this day.

Find out how other writers get their story ideas at these blog sites:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1dm
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

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5

Translating Travel into Fiction

ROUND ROBIN BLOG POST

Continuing with my Round Robin blog posts we have been invited this month to write about one or all of the following:

What stories have your written or read where a holiday takes place. To what purpose was the inclusion of the holiday? How do you celebrate holidays or events? Does this ever make it into one of your stories?

Well as soon as I saw this I thought about the first novel that I wrote which was inspired largely by a holiday.

It was back in my ‘L’ Plate writer days, when I still believed that it was best to write about what you know. I had lost a job because my depression had become so severe and I had time on my hands – and anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a happy person unless I’m busy. So, to help both my depression and the long days ahead of me, I decided to write a book. Just like that (as Tommy Cooper might say). The remarkable thing is that I actually did write that book, and I was even supported in doing so by a ‘New Work and Commissions Award for Literature’ from East Midlands Arts.

So, how did I decide what to write? Well, because I was depressed at the time the navel-gazing part of me was interested in exploring recovery from depression. To pivot the storyline on a more substantial event I decided that the cause of the depression for my protagonist would be the loss of a baby – another autobiographical feature of the book. Not long before this my husband, son and I had been on a brilliant holiday travelling round Scotland for two weeks by train and staying at Youth Hostels along the way. The scenery in Scotland is so beautiful, and for me it really engages the soul – I think Scotland has felt like a spiritual home for as long as I have been going there. So this holiday and that journey crept into the book. Add in a complete stranger for my protagonist to travel with and I had the makings of a story.

Now I come to think of it, that book also contained a second holiday within it – a city break we did in Amsterdam. I had a second story strand based in Amsterdam, and corresponded with an acquaintance who lived there to get the details right. This is in complete contrast to the book that I am writing at the moment which has three different settings abroad as part of the storyline, none of which I have visited at all. Of course, this may well change given my love of detailed research and the multiple offers I have received from people who would like to visit these places with me. ‘It’s part of your research, you must do it!’ they say – if only the space in my diary said the same…

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Saltire flag on ferry

The novel that my agent is currently pitching to publishers also has a holiday in it. A serial killer forms a friendship with a woman who was born profoundly deaf because they share an internal sense of isolation from the world. When he kills in his own village the invasion by the press and the police is too much for either of them to bear and they go away to a cottage in Norfolk together. This brings a breather in the plot, a sense of jeopardy for the deaf woman, and an intensification of their relationship. It is also a natural response of the characters as we have grown to know them to the situation. The woman has a special relationship with the community land in the village and this is desecrated by the murder and the police cordon prevents access to her treasured land. The killer is trying to escape his nature and the consequences of his actions.

Thinking further on this topic reminds me of one of my all-time favourite books: Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh. This is the most brilliant novel set in medieval times and exploring philosophical issues around belief in God. I love the way that this issue is explored through the stories of a girl brought up by wolves and a ship-wrecked atheist, and how the Cardinal of the island’s attempts to convince the atheist of the existence to God leads to a friendship of intellectual equals and also to tradegy. Paton Walsh says that the novel is set on ‘an island somewhat like Mallorca, but not Mallorca’, and the presence of the island is there in spades. I could identify the place she drew from for the setting for the imprisonment of the atheist and the walks he took with the Cardinal as they discussed theology. It added much to my enjoyment of the novel to have this sense of place as I read. Do read it! And recommendations of books with holidays and travel at the centre would be most welcome…

Find out what other bloggers think about this topic:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Dr. Bob Rich https://bobrich18.wordpress.com/2017/11/18/holidays
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/round-robin-november-2017-holidays-traditions-writing/

© Anne de Gruchy

9

Novel Writing – The Dilemmas of Time Travelling!

A Round Robin Post

First of all, an apology. All of those who hit the link to my blog expecting a big sci-fi epic are about to be disappointed – today, in our Round Robin blog posts, we have been posed the question:

In what time period do you prefer to set your stories – past, present, or future? What are the problems and advantages of that choice? Would you like to change?

I suppose, as a starting point, I should admit that all of my novels have started in a contemporary setting – they are about events that are happening now, but the present story generally relates to an important back story which is told throughout the book. How I structure the book to contain the backstory is the tricky bit. There is an exception, but I’ll come to that later.

Secondly, I absolutely love writing in the present tense. This has become more fashionable now, but when I wrote my first novel many years ago it was quite unusual. I like the present tense because it is immediate – the reader is in the situation with the characters and there is less chance of just ‘telling’ the story rather than showing it through the actions and responses of the characters. There is no chance of ‘wrong-footing’ your reader as everything is happening page by page.

As my novels have progressed, the way that I ‘time travel’ from present to backstory has got more and more complicated.

My first book was a deliberately linear story, covering a five month period and told from the viewpoint of four main characters. The theme is a woman coming to terms with the loss of a baby through travelling around Scotland with a complete stranger. The loss of the baby is backstory, but is expressed through things that evoke memories and through building trust with someone to confide in.

My second book is my exception and began with a structure that I have used in some way in all my following novels – there is a present storyline interspersed with the backstory both forming their own cohesive narratives. In this book I have very short snippets of the present (the making of a couture wedding dress) preceded by long sections of backstory. This is an unusual book for me as it is narrated first person – a brilliant opportunity to get into the head of a dysfunctional teenager who comes of age through motherhood. However the book is set against a backdrop of the declining clothing industry in Nottingham in the 1990s. This posed a dilemma when I abandoned the book for many years following a marriage break up. When I returned to it the 1990s had gone but the events and characters were pertinent to that time. I completely rewrote the book, and by default it had a ‘historical’ setting (albeit recent) which spoke about a period of history in a city’s life.

The book that is going out to publishers now, my third book, also has a structure that time travels from past to present – each section beginning with a crime committed by a serial killer, then returning to the present to tell the story of his friendship with a woman who was born profoundly deaf and their connection to the fenland landscape. This flowed well, because the present story sections formed a linear narrative to hold things together. I cannot say that I am finding this kind of structure and time slip as easy in the book that I am writing now!

So, to the present (in my writing of books, anyway). The novel I am working on now is proving a bit of a beast to tame! I know exactly what happens, and could have chosen to write this as a direct linear narrative covering the period of a year or so. However the book (currently) begins with an event that falls in the MIDDLE of this narrative – posing problems as to how to go both backwards and forwards with the storyline. I have tried many variations – only last week I restructured the balance of the book – and I still can’t work out where to use past and present tense!

Backwards, forwards, and everywhere in-between – my writing is definitely a bit of a time travelling machine. I, and the reader, never know quite where we might end up!!

Find out more about past, present and future in other writers’ work at:

Marie Laval http://marielaval.blogspot.co.uk/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-14G
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Heidi M. Thomas http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

14

Talking about Genre (or: Trying to avoid the ‘L’ Word!)

A Round Robin Post

Hello dear friends and brave blog-readers.

Today I am going on a new adventure – I am trying out a blog-post for a writing-related ‘Round Robin’ that I discovered through a fellow member of the Book Connectors Facebook page. Here’s how it works:

Each month I will receive a new topic that I can choose to write about if it appeals to me. There is a specific date for publication, with other bloggers who are interested also posting on that subject on the same day. At the bottom of our posts we will all provide links to the other blogs that have participated. Thus you can dip into a whole series of alternative views on that topic should you feel like a marathon read.

www.annedegruchy.co.uk image: a shelf of books

Here is the topic I was asked to address today:

Whatever genre you write, do you have a different one that you love to read? What do you think attracts readers to certain genres?

Well, my first thought was: don’t get me started!

Genre is one of those things that people often ask about if you tell them that you’re a writer. ‘What kind of books do you write,’ they ask. ‘Literary fiction,’ I reply. Here there is usually a long pause and then, inevitably, the killer question: ‘What’s “literary fiction”?’

This is not something I find easy to answer. I think it’s obvious; other people clearly do not.

I looked up ‘literary’ in the online Oxford Dictionary which came up with the following: ‘Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form’.

Great, I thought – although it can sound a bit arrogant if you use the ‘quality’ word as it seems to imply that other forms of literature are less than acceptable in this department. Further, the dictionary suggested that, in relation to language, ‘literary’ is associated with writing that has ‘a marked style intended to create a particular emotional effect’.

I’m not sure about that, and it does all seem a little vague. I am definitely a sucker for emotion though, and for anything that moves me or makes me think deeply about things. If I look honestly at my own novels it’s possibly only the most recently finished one that would fully qualify as ‘literary’. The one before might be ‘commercial women’s fiction with a literary bent’, whatever that is – but thereby hangs another tale.

I do have a get-out clause to explain what ‘literary fiction’ is when people ask me: anything that is likely to be entered for the Booker Prize. And, to be honest, this is also my favourite type of thing to read. Give me John Banville or Jon McGregor any day over romance or crime or steampunk (although that is rather fun). My favourite books of all time would include The Bone People by Keri Hulme (yes, it won the Booker) and Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton-Walsh (full of amazing ideas, and yes, a Booker shortlistee).

I find it interesting that I have attracted an agent who does not fully share my overly literary tastes. Her background, workwise, is slightly more commercial and also crime-orientated. When I described my reading tastes to her they included authors that she simply doesn’t get on with – I was reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child at the time. I do find it comforting that when I heard Alan Hollinghurst speak about his writing process it was remarkably similar to my own. Maybe this is an omen that there is hope for me yet in getting that publishing deal!

But I am a wide reader and I always have some non-fiction on the go, too. I am very into philosophy and spiritual writing, and am currently enjoying a brilliant translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours, subtitled Love Poems to God. I love poetry. And I’m not averse to the occasional foray across the fiction genres – for instance I enjoyed Stieg Larssons’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of the Millennium Trilogy (it helped that I also have a dragon tattoo so there was an inbuilt affinity from page one).

So what do I think attracts readers to certain genres?

Well it’s so personal that I find it hard to say. I’m told that, however literary your work, you still need a good plot with a hook and direction and engaging characters, but I could give you examples of books that break that rule and still work. It helps though, whatever the genre, to be carried along with the characters and what they want to achieve; to feel that you are in good hands and will arrive at your destination without disappointment.

Personally, I love language. I love rhythm and metre and the way writing can make you sense and feel the things that the author is describing. I like an emotional journey as well as a practical one. I like ambiguous endings that don’t wrong-foot you at the last minute.

I do find it interesting that many of the writers that I like are men. I think that there can be a divide between the sexes in tastes, and where authors want to appeal across the gender divide they sometimes resort to de-sexing themselves by using initials. Think P D James or J K Rowling. I have not checked this statistically, but I suspect that men are much less likely to buy a book that they know is written by a woman. Women, however, seem to be more willing to cross the divide. (I have just done a little online search on this and discovered a Goodreads survey from a couple of years ago that showed an overwhelming proportion of books read – by both the sexes – were written by authors of the same gender, however the authors had branded themselves. I am always happy to be proved wrong!)

So… Perhaps readers make assumptions about what a book will be like depending on who has written it, and perhaps they have a better chance of liking it if they do! They also make assumptions based on the cover. Look at how standardized the styling of different genres has become, and at the repackaging of books aimed at young people with alternative covers to also appeal to an adult audience. We are a gullible lot, and well led by the media and the publishing industry.

But this cover ‘uniformity’ and branding by genre (dark pictures with big author names in silver letters equals ‘thriller’, etc) reflects what is probably a wider truth – people love the reassurance of what is familiar. They like to dip into a new book knowing that it will ‘fit’ like a comfy pair of old slippers. They stick with what they know. How they decide which genre constitutes a comfy pair of old slippers for them is another story.

Maybe there’s a case for simply going into a bookshop or an online store and choosing the fourth book along, on the third row down, and seeing whether, without prejudice, you might just happen to like it after all…

© Anne de Gruchy

Now check out what some other authors think about the subject of genre…

Skye Taylor http://www.askyetaylor.com/blogging_by_the_sea/view/542
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Heather Haven http://heatherhavenstories.com/blog/
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-11v
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Kay Sisk http://www.kaysisk.com/blog
Rachel Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/