What’s in a name?

I’m ploughing on with the outline of book no.4 and once again trying to think of new and interesting names for my characters. Some of them are already decided, drawn through from the previous books, but others keep changing as I change my mind. ‘Find and Replace’ is very handy at times like this.

Up to now I’ve chosen names in keeping with the Cumbrian west coast locations where the stories are set. I’ve found names on local gravestones, in newspapers of the periods and from people I know. But in the new book times are changing. More cars and greater social mobility have begun to break down the very tight communities and more incomers are around from other areas of the country.

Names do seem to mean a lot round here. They can be a source of jokes and teasing, or shortened to nicknames that stick longer than the name you were born with, some complimentary, some not. Some names, if you’re very unlucky, are truly unfortunate and you wonder what the parents who chose them were thinking of. I taught a girl in school once whose family name was Dyck. To compound the difficulty, the poor girl was named Coral. And the boy from the Hunt family who was called Michael, shortened to Mike….. he had a terrible time.

Dickens has some stunning names, long, memorable and eccentric. I wish I had the courage to follow suit. Maybe what I could do is give one character a name that somehow defines how people treat him and how he responds, which in turn will show the reader something about him.

For names of places, I’m struggling with the same dilemma I’ve faced before, as does every writer of ‘localised’ fiction. Do I use the names of real towns and villages and risk mistakes in geography and history, or do like Hardy and Dorset, describing known places but giving them new names, thus avoiding any need to be absolutely accurate in both time and place? In ‘A Good Liar’ I anonymised one of the communities – where I live myself – but presented others exactly as they were, with their proper names. It was awkward in some respects: I’ve had to deny readers’ requests for a map, for example because the mix of fact and fiction would be too confusing. In other respects, however, getting away from naming real places is liberating. You no longer have to worry about potential insult to the place and its inhabitants, and the need for detailed research fades a little.

The added problem I’m facing now is that there are bad deeds done by some in the story. When nice people populate a named place, that’s fine, but when the people are vicious, identifying the community is less welcome to present-day readers from the same area.

Don’t have to make final decisions yet, and I have a meeting with my editor shortly to discuss the rapidly expanding outline and the pros and cons of the options ahead. In the meantime, I’m trying to be a little more creative with naming my characters, and take as much care with that as I do with their appearance, habits and approach to life. I want to make my characters real ‘characters’.

‘Writing a novel starter pack’ : what to include?

I love teaching, always have, and since 1982 I’ve been working with adults as learners rather than younger students. Having recently struggled myself to learn the basics of starting, finishing and publishing a novel, what I’d love to do now is ‘teach’ some of that to anyone who’s embarking on the same journey. It’s making me think: what would I put in my ‘writing a novel starter pack’?

I’m going back over all the courses I’ve been on in the past six years, to identify the most useful elements and processes and then knit those bits into a structure and time frame that would suit a beginner who might not want to embark on a long commitment, but wants to get a taste of what may be involved before they delve deeper.

From the very first Arvon course I went on in 2008 I learned how to expand the germ of an idea into the start of a story, capture a fragment of that story in a scene, write it as well as I could, read it to others, get feedback and see how that felt. We also learned about dialogue, and a bit about structure. We did the inevitable writing exercises, too, just to get us going and sharing. I could have done with more about structure and Point of View, and maybe fewer of the ‘exercises’ but it was still a wonderful week and I’m still drawing on it years later. Best bits? Dealing with dialogue, and writing a scene for reading out and critique.

At a Faber Academy course called ‘Stuck in the Middle’ I picked up the usefulness of capturing the essence of your story, expanding it into a short synopsis and then have others ask questions and make suggestions. When the people grilling you about your story are as skilled and insightful as Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant, it’s both intimidating and exhilarating, and I learned not just about the elements of a good story but about myself too, and the confidence it takes to benefit from critique.

Some of the courses to do with publishing have been disappointing: my main memory of a Guardian event at Kings Place in London was of being lectured and feeling patronised by a prestigious agent who, as the New Zealanders say, was seriously up herself. If I had to deal with people like that to find a publisher, I said to myself, self-publishing may be the way to go. Another element of my ‘essentials’ package therefore would be something about the ‘costs and benefits’ of self-publishing, and some guidance about how to set about it if that’s your choice.

My own novels so far have used a strong sense of place, and in my head for this notional workshop is a Venn diagram of how ‘setting’, ‘characters’ and ‘events’ interconnect and overlap to create the basic structure of a story. Maybe I could use that simple idea as the start of an exercise to create an outline, share the ideas, refine them through discussion, build a character or a scene in greater detail and write, read and re-write to see how the editing process works. We could something on Point of View, dialogue, or the 3 act structure, or opening paragraphs, or just flag those up as areas to be worked on at the next stage. Then we could discuss the process of getting from manuscript into print or ebook and how to get people to buy it, if that’s what you want.

Sounds like a plan. Like most first drafts of a teaching plan, there’s probably too much in it, but much will depend on the size, composition and starting points of the group, and the length of time they will spend with you. That in turn is set against how much time and money people can spare for such an experience. I’m sure you could find workshops like this in London, or Manchester or Newcastle or Glasgow but in rural areas like Cumbria we can be frustrated by the time and money it takes to access the learning we want. Going to London by train from the west coast of Cumbria means travel to Carlisle or Lancaster and then a 3-4 hour train ride, too far to travel there and back in a day so the overnight costs are added to the cost of the workshop, taking it beyond reasonable outlay. Key criteria: accessible, practical, experiential, and with a tangible ‘product’ to take away and work on.

So, I shall keep working on my plan to offer a writing workshop in Cumbria with the basic ingredients I’ve found most useful, for a smallish group of people seriously interested in writing a novel, sometime over the next few months, just to see if I can do it and if it works. If I can and it does, I’ll learn how to make it better and do it again. In the meantime, if anyone who reads this would be interested, let me know.

Delectable authenticity

In the great scheme of things, few people really care about absolute authenticity, but I’m one of them. We notice the glaring anomalies, like the plastic water bottle on a recent photo of the Downton Abbey set, but to appreciate much of we see or read in historical fiction we would need to be extraordinarily expert in the details of the period. If hardly anyone will notice or appreciate the details, why do I spend so much time and effort trying to get it right? I do it because I love it; it gives me a smug satisfaction that I can defend the things I’ve portrayed and the words I’ve used. Earlier this week I was reading from ‘A Good Liar’ a conversation between my heroine and her mother about the respectability of the father of Jessie’s unborn child. ‘They live in Mikasa Street,’ Jessie pleaded, ‘They’ve got a bathroom!’. I couldn’t help myself, breaking off from the reading to assure my listeners that the houses in Mikasa Street (built by Vickers  in Vickerstown on Walney Island, named after a battleship in the Japanese navy) did indeed have bathrooms befitting the status of the workers to whom they were allocated. I beamed at them, they stared back. I’m sure none of them cared, but I did.

For more distant historical settings, the problem may be less acute, but many readers will have lived through my twentieth century settings themselves and will spot anachronism immediately. I was talking recently about the setting of my third book ‘Fallout’, in Seascale in 1957 at the time of the Windscale nuclear reactor fire. A lady in the audience told me cheerfully ‘Oh, yes, I was there that day’ and told me about watching the smoke streaming from the stack above the reactor building as she walked across the compound towards her office. ‘Which way was the wind blowing?’ I asked, but she couldn’t remember.

The setting for my next book will be around 1970 in the Furness area of what was then Lancashire and is now Cumbria. I’ve already spoken to people who worked in the newsroom of the Barrow-in-Furness newspaper at the time and next week I have a date with an ex-policeman from the same era. He laughed when I told him I was interested in the details of how it was to work in the force at that time: when the details are part of your own life you never think of them as important. But the details in my contact’s memory are gold-dust to me, and I shall listen hard, noting and remembering everything I can. How did the average copper think, talk and act at that time, before all the technological changes we have seen in the past 40 years? How did they relate to each other and to other ranks and parts of the service? Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh detectives call the men in uniform ‘woolly suits’: what were they called by their Barrow counterparts in 1970?

I know already that a large proportion of this authentic detail will never end up in the book. I’m writing a story, not a social history of the police force, and the pace can’t be bogged down by too much unnecessary information. I also know that the little nuggets of truth that emerge fresh and glinting into the text may delight only me and the few others who recognise their veracity. For most readers a few authentic details just add flavour to the image that springs from the words on the page. It could be the smell of something, a phrase or dialect word, a joke, a reference; anything can enhance the picture, like salt in food, taking it from the bland to the memorable. That’s what I’m after when I interview my bemused ex-policeman next week. By the way, all I did was send an exploratory email to Barrow police station: somehow, my request ended up on the desk of a Superintendent whose request for someone to respond carried sufficient authority that I heard back within days.

A year or two back, investigating the disaster in one of the Whitehaven pits in 1947 I came across the actual verbatim record of the enquiry into the disaster held by the National Coal Board at the time. It was tucked away in the archive of the Durham Mining Museum. Reading it was like there being there, and I managed to use just a word or two in the voice of one of the survivors. When the underground explosion happened, he said, they were some way from it but ‘the air fluttered’. What a wonderful phrase. Into the text it went and I love it still. Listening to my ex-policeman on Wednesday will give me the same delight, and hopefully the same treasure trove of authentic detail to mix into the story.

Diverse approaches to writing

For two days I’ve been in the company of writers, at the first Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle, and my mind is almost too busy to cope. I arrived here by car, plane and train from the Outer Hebrides on Friday night, made my own small contribution to the event running a workshop on ‘Writing Local Fiction’ on Saturday morning, and then, relieved of any responsibility, settled down to enjoy learning from others. What I have learned since then is enough to keep this blog going for weeks, but for now I’ll choose just one element that especially interested me yesterday.

It was a panel discussion presented as a ‘Clash of the Genres’ with two historical novelists, William Ryan and Ben Kane, versus two crime/thriller writers Matt Hilton and Sheila Quigley. The ‘debate’ that developed was less a clash of genres than a clash of approaches to the task of writing. Each of the four very successful writers organised their writing in completely different ways. Matt Hilton turned a childhood addiction to American thrillers into a career emulating that genre from a distance, producing American style thrillers of his own for several years before he ever visited the USA. When he visits there now I wonder how some of his readers receive his broad Cumbrian accent. Hilton has absorbed the details of his specific genre so well that his reproduction of it is perfect. He was never ‘taught’ to write, he just learned it through reading. He draws his inspiration and ideas from visual images, a juxtaposition of landscape and objects and people that sparks the kernel of the story. ‘Who is that man?’ he asks himself. ‘Where has he come from? Why is wearing that, and what’s happening over that hill?’

Sheila Quigley also learned to write through reading, but finds her material not in photographic images from another country but all around her home in the north-east of England, in the street, the pub, the post office; intensely local personal landscapes that she peoples with characters that come into her head fully formed and write their stories through her. One of her readers described her talent as ‘channeling’, as a medium between the spirits of her characters and the words that pour into her laptop. She has never planned any of her work more than four pages ahead, writing down what she sees and hears in her head. She began writing little pieces about the area and ‘sending them off’ – to whom and where I wondered – until one day an agent rang from London and asked if she could write crime fiction set in the north-east. ‘Of course,’ she replied, not knowing the first thing about crime fiction, and many books later she is still going strong. Could that still happen now, or has publishing become too risk-averse?

Historical novelist Ben Kane was a vet in a former life who grew tired of the long hours and broken weekends on call and looked for another way to earn a living. Boyhood in Ireland – with no television – had brought a passion for books and history that led him inexorably towards  as he put it, ‘men with swords’ and that’s what he writes about, mostly the Roman Army and Empire. Not content with sedentary research, and as a way of keeping fit, he decided to do his research experientially, dressing as a Roman legionary to walk Hadrian’s Wall for example, to get the full sensation of such a life. Whatever he does, it works, and he obviously loves every minute of it.

Finally, chairing the panel with charm and grace, was William Ryan, also Irish, also a unstoppable reader as a child who ended up barrister before he too tired of the long hours and heavy demands and turned his hand to something else. This time the passion was Soviet Russia in the 1930s, with an underlying theme befitting a barrister, the search for truth and justice. His hero, Captain Korolev, shares that passion, in the unpromising and dangerous context of Stalin’s dictatorship. Research for Ryan is both digital and personal, and the planning meticulous, such a contrast to the unplanned narratives from Quigley. Of the four, only Ryan had subjected himself to a ‘Creative Writing’ course, and though he ‘learned a great deal from it’ – he is a very polite man – he was offered during a two year course no guidance whatsoever about the structure of full-length fiction.

There’ll be more in future posts about the usefulness or otherwise of ‘Creative Writing’ as an academic discipline with qualifications. For now, I need to reflect on the diversity of how writers approach their work, and how I do so myself. In my morning workshop yesterday I tried to share the approach I can see developing for me with the three books now done and a fourth beginning to take shape. Research? Yes, early on to get a feel for the period and then again later to answer specific questions that the emerging narrative throws up. Planning ahead? Essential for me, but still allowing that in the end the characters themselves may react in unpredicted ways, bending the story to fit their demands. And what of the characters themselves? The most important lesson I have learned and acted upon has been to start to write not about the plot but about the life stories of my characters, their childhoods, their parents, schooling, likes and dislikes, how they speak, dress, walk. Only a fraction of all this might find its way into the story, but the story is enriched by it. It is that deeper understanding of who your people are, filtered through the imagination and onto the page, that allows those same people to take your little plot and make it something worthwhile and interesting. I don’t think Dan Brown ever understood that, or maybe he didn’t need to as his books sold in the millions with some of the weakest characters and the most clunky dialogue that ever appeared between book covers. I’m trying not to think about the implications of that.


Opening paragraphs

At the very beginning, when I was starting my very first novel, I wanted to ‘set the scene’ for my readers, and began with a long description of a time and place – actually Barrow-in-Furness in 1916 – which I thought was pretty damn good. Considering what I was describing, steel works, a shipyard, a Victorian town hall, it was positively lyrical, a seagull’s eye view, dropping down to my heroine standing on the town hall steps, waiting for her lover. Lyrical, but no good. The whole thing went in the bin. What sent it there was an exercise I did while on a very good course that was ostensibly about finishing a novel, but turned into how to start it. Our ‘homework’ was to go and find the best opening paragraph and decide what made it so.

The are some classics, in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Bleak House’ for example, and quickly became clear to me that my description of Barrow-in-Furness Town Hall was not of that ilk and would have to go. What replaced it at the start of ‘A Good Liar’ wasn’t brilliant, but it was certainly better. I read it sometimes when I’m talking to groups about the trilogy, and there is often a gratifying ‘Ah,’ after those few opening lines. For some people, that means ‘I’m hooked’ and that’s exactly the effect I was looking for.

In Book 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’ I used the great opening sentence that I’m sure has been used many times before, because has such delicious portent: ‘Someone was knocking on the door.’ I recall seeing the movie ‘Sideways’ for the first time. The opening shot is complete darkness, and then the sound of someone hammering on a door. It’s the hero’s door, and the action starts as he wakes, listens, gets out of bed and opens it. I loved that, and remembered it. Incidentally, the same film ends with the same character knocking on another door, as the next phase of his life begins.

Now I’m thinking about the new book, and possible opening paragraphs are rolling through my head. I see a striking, intriguing image, and try to find the words to write it down. The starting point is not words, but a visual image. Is that the way you write?

Try it: pick up a novel and read the opening paragraph. Dissect it. What has the writer decided to do, and why? What do you see from the words on the page? What makes you want to read on, or not?

Maybe I should leave the opening paragraph right to the very end, savouring every detail, every word, until I’m happy. That takes patience, and I have to work very hard at that. Meanwhile the ‘events’ of the new book are beginning to take shape, and the first chapter is forming in my head, even if the first paragraph will have to wait.