What about the ‘unreliable narrator’?

Two recent bestsellers have two things in common: the first is the use of the word ‘girl’ in the title, and the second is a story told by at least one ‘unreliable narrator’. I read ‘Gone Girl’ because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and felt at the end that I needed to cleanse myself from its unredeemed nastiness. Both ‘unreliable narrators’ were equally horrid and it was of little interest to me therefore which of them was the real villain. After that experience I was determined to resist the hype around ‘Girl on the Train’ and haven’t read it, or seen the film. girl-on-the-trainI read the reviews however and understand that the narrator – transposed from London to the USA for the film – is a drunkard and a liar whose testimony must therefore be suspect. I’m not sure I would warm to the character any more than I did to the ghastly creatures in the previous ‘Girl’ book.

Then I remembered another unreliable narrator, where the device was employed to such effect that I was pulled further into the story than I would have been otherwise. This was in ‘Empire of the Sun’, by J.G. Ballard, a story told from the point of view of a young boy – Ballard himself – caught up in the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1941, and its aftermath. Jim, the unreliable narrator, brings to the story his own childish innocence, naivety, optimism and compassion. He is unaware of his own slow decline into starvation and illness, and the reader has to glean this information not from the boy himself but from the reactions of the adults he encounters. It’s a gut-wrenching experience, in both the book and the film, and had a powerful impact on me. empire-of-the-sun

Ever since then I’ve toyed with the possibilities of using the POV of an unreliable but sympathetic story-teller. To begin with in my writing it was hard enough just to get the story told in a way that would keep the reader engaged, using the most straightforward narrative techniques – past tense, third person. I recall suggesting to my editor very early on that I might try something more ambitious and being gently warned off. Now with five ‘traditionally-told’ novels under my belt, this could be the time to stretch my skills. I’ve already given myself more time, delaying the next publication until the summer of 2018. Now I have to use that time to think about the choices I have and how best to tell a compelling story with a narrator who is likeable, even loveable, but whose view of events is limited by personality, maturity, or the complexity of the circumstances they face. It’s a challenge. I’m thinking hard about it.

Writing about your own community

Every year in mid-December I borrow tables, chairs and crockery and invite all my neighbours in for the  ‘Street feast’.

feast-2016

The annual gathering took place last night: fourteen adults, two children and a baby celebrating his first birthday with us. Ages ranged from 81 to the one year old and we all packed into my relatively small space – not a buffet, a proper sit-down meal. It’s a logistical challenge, and this was the biggest yet, but every year I’m glad we do it. Our row of nine houses is just a part of our village in West Cumbria, and the conversation round the tables last night showed yet again why this part of the world is such a rich setting for an ‘offcomer’ writer: long histories, inter-connecting families, shared memories and concerns.

Offcomers must always be on the fringe but being part of a community like this is very satisfying: over twenty years in my Salford flat I knew only two of my neighbours to speak to. I was accepted here relatively quickly mainly because my son-in-law is well-known in sporting circles and makes me ‘OK’ by association. Acceptance into a community brings with it a sense of responsibility. Writing the trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ was my first attempt at fiction, inspired by this place and its people, and I felt a strong obligation to get my facts right, which means many hours of research and checking. Worth it though.

At the launch of my new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ last week in Whitehaven the Director of the Beacon Museum who welcomed us to her place said that my Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ was one of the first things she read on arriving in Cumbria and gave her an invaluable insight into the recent history of the place and its people. I was very chuffed by that. Last night’s party added to that sense of community and I loved it, as I always do.

Where do plots come from?

I’m sure anyone who writes a novel is asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t speak for anyone else, but thinking back on the books I’ve written so far, there seem to be a few places where plot ideas come from.

  • My own experience, things that have happened to me personally, together with all the emotions that surrounded them. Some of these are from decades ago, others more recent. I’m not providing any examples of these, to preserve my own privacy and the trust of those around me.
  • Stories or snippets of stories I’ve heard from other people. One of these, told to me many years ago, concerned growing up in Belfast in the 1960s with a Catholic father and protestant mother. Another, just a memorable snippet, was about a young man whose wife left him and then returned to their house a few days later while he was at work and removed every stick of furniture, every carpet, curtain and light fitting. He was too shocked and humiliated to track her down.
  • Details gleaned from contemporary newspapers and accounts. I use the Whitehaven News for some of this background colour, peering at the microfilm reader to find authentic details that could later become small valuable nuggets in the story. It’s a useful source as it’s weekly and contains all the court cases, petty theft, accidents, and features that add depth to the picture I’m painting. The post-war period I researched for ‘Forgiven’ was rich in detail that evoked that particular time: the parish council resolution that refused to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day in 1946 as they had ‘nothing to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with’; the couple who were caught handling blackmarket pork when a mouse ate through the string supporting a heavy illegal ham hanging upstairs, with damaging consequences. In ‘Sellafield Stories’ an oral history of the Cumbrian nuclear plant I found some rich detail about the reactor fire of October 1957 from people who were there at the time. Transcripts of hearings and enquiries are also great ‘primary sources’, raw, unfiltered by anything except the capacity of the note-taker to capture everything that was said. One of the survivors of the William Pit disaster of August 1947 gave evidence to the official enquiry about his experience of the explosion and his escape from the mine, and I took some of his words directly into my text for ‘Forgiven’. Maybe it’s the historian in me that get so excited about the authenticity of evidence like that.
  • Places, and what might have happened, or could happen in this setting. When I did the walk across Morecambe Bay from Arnside a year or two ago I was very struck by the care we had to use when approaching the shore at Kents Bank to avoid a shiny grey patch of mud that wobbled visibly as we came close. This was quicksand, and a false step into it could have been life-threatening. My latest novel ‘Cruel Tide’ drew its opening scene from this experience.

None of these nuggets, of themselves, provide you with a plot, but some of them will provoke the essential ‘what if?’ questions from which great stories can be created. They also remind you of features of earlier times that could provide a starting point. For the novel I’m researching at present, a casual meander around some websites has already provided a striking image that will anchor the plot at the start and leave an after-taste of menace and threat. I had to decide who would witness this image, where, when and how, and what impact it might have, and the story began to take shape. It’s very early days yet, but I’m pretty sure that I already have the first chapter. Once I get to that stage, the story ideas begin to bubble up, adding more strands and twists. The trick is to know when to stop adding layer after layer of complexity and characters, how to shape the story into the necessary peaks and troughs, and then take a deep breath and start….’Chapter One’.

What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:

 

Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.