JANE EYRE WAS HERE? Or was she?

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I struck straight into the heath; I held on to a hollow I saw deeply furrowing the brown moorside; I waded knee-deep in its dark growth; I turned with its turnings, and finding a moss-blackened granite crag in a hidden angle, I sat down under it. High banks of moor were about me; the crag protected my head: the sky was over that.

Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë 1847

 

Most people, who know anything about the Brontë family, will know that they lived in a gloomy vicarage in Hawarth, West Yorkshire, on the edge of the rugged Pennine uplands. Most of us, too, will have seen the windswept ‘Cathy come home’ film clip renditions of scenes from Emily Brontë’s dark romance Wuthering Heights. And so, if we think of it all, we probably imagine that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is set in her home county too.

And we’d probably be wrong. Circumstances and too many clues suggest that it was Hathersage and its environs in Derbyshire’s Dark Peak that informed the landscape of Charlotte Brontë’s imagination as she wrote Jane Eyre.

If you read my last post on the Seven Stones Bronze Age circle on Hordron Edge you will have seen the above vista – Stanage Edge above Moscar Moor. The path to this part of the moor begins at Cutthroat Bridge on the Glossop – Sheffield road just south-west of the old boundary stone at Moscar Cross. From here the hills fall away to the Derwent Valley and the vast Ladybower Reservoir built in the 1930s. You can just see a glimpse of the reservoir in the next photo taken from Hordron Edge.  It would have been a steep river valley in Brontë’s time. At the reservoir the road divides – west for Glossop and Manchester, and south for Bamford and Hathersage.

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This next quotation is one of the possible ‘real location’ clues. It describes Whitcross, the place that many now identify as Moscar Cross. This isolated spot is where Jane Eyre is dropped by the coachman because she hasn’t enough money to pay for the onward journey. So begins her desperate wandering and lonely night out on the moors. She has just run away from Thornfield Hall and her thwarted marriage plans. Husband to be, Edward Rochester, has been exposed. He is already married to a lunatic wife whom he keeps locked in the attic. Jane’s sense of shock, loss and emotional distress are heightened as she loses herself physically, choosing to walk away from all identifiable landmarks and into the wild unknown:

Whitcross is no town, nor even a hamlet; it is but a stone pillar set up where four roads meet: whitewashed, I suppose, to be more obvious at a distance and in darkness. Four arms spring from its summit: the nearest town to which these point is, according to the inscription, distant ten miles; the farthest, above twenty. From the well-known names of these towns I learn in what county I have lighted; a north-midland shire, dusk with moorland, ridged with mountain: this I see. There are great moors behind and on each hand of me; there are waves of mountains far beyond that deep valley at my feet.

And why, you might ask, are people so keen to think that Whitcross is Moscar Cross? Does it even matter?

Of course it doesn’t. That a writer was drawing on what they knew of actual places when creating their fictional settings doesn’t necessarily add to our enjoyment of the story. On the other hand, to know that they had a definite somewhere in their mind’s eye may offer a few insights into the nature of the creative process.

I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of PLACE in fiction, and that SETTING is more than just a location. In the best stories the evocation of place can be as crucial as the conjuring of believable characters to occupy it.

Writers need to do their world-building homework very carefully – the outcome of which is likely to be more successful if they are summoning places and situations that have already stirred their creative impulses. When they come to write, they are already firing on all senses: can walk in their character’s shoes; feel through their skin; see through their eyes.  And if the narrative warrants something more complex, there can be, by way of dramatic or comic irony, further interplay between what the reader may ‘know’ of the place and what the protagonists are seen to experience.

Of course all creative people make up things, but they also start their imagining from what they know: from people, places, things that have struck or affected them.

But to return to the Hathersage connections and Jane Eyre  and the real reason why I’m indulging in this piece of literary tourism. For those of you who have read my recent posts you’ll know that the small Peak District town of Hathersage has personal family connections. My ancestors farmed on its outskirts from at least the late 1600s to 1892 (see Stepping Stones Through Time and Ancestor Sleuthing in Derbyshire ).

My great great Fox uncles and aunts of Callow Farm were exact contemporaries of Charlotte Brontë, and some of them would have been around in 1845 when the writer spent three weeks in Hathersage, staying with her very close friend from school days, Ellen Nussey.

Ellen was the vicar’s sister, and he, Henry Nussey had just got married and was away visiting his mother with his new bride. At some stage Charlotte had apparently refused a marriage proposal from Henry (he who apparently liked to draw up lists of attributes for any potential wife) and so his absence was perhaps taken advantage of by Ellen. In any event, the two women spent this time going out and about and visiting local notables.

And while I don’t for a moment think that these outings included afternoon tea at Callow, I am quite enjoying the notion of them sharing the ‘same air’. In fact Callow may well have been a sad place in the summer of 1845. In March of that year, my 3 x Great Grandmother, Mary Ann Fox nee Williamson, had died of ‘general dropsy’ at the age of 57. She is a bit of mystery, possibly ‘a London lady’ who in circumstances unknown became engaged to local bruiser and fist-fighter, Robert Fox of Callow. They were wed by marriage bond in Southwell Minster in 1812. She was anyway survived by four daughters and three sons, and although some of the girls look to have been employed in households outside the area around this time, I’m thinking there may have been Fox family members at Hathersage church on those Sundays in July when Charlotte and Ellen doubtless attended.

One of the places the two women definitely did visit on several occasions was North Lees Hall, below Stanage Edge, near Hathersage. It was lived in at the time by members of the very populous Eyre dynasty whose antecedents had built it in the 1500s.

North Lees BBC2Photo credit: BBC

The Eyres had occupied many such houses in the area over the previous several hundred years. In fact my Fox family legend (totally unsubstantiated) has it that the first ancestral Derbyshire Fox was the steward of the vanquishing Eyre who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, and that this relationship continued down the ages – from which you may also surmise that some of my ancestors told rather good, if dodgy tales. In fact they were still telling this one when Great Great Grandfather George sold up at Callow in 1892. I know, because it was picked up at the time and featured by several local and regional newspapers.

Nor was Charlotte apparently averse to recycling tales. North Lees came with its own legend that told of one Agnes Ashurst, a mad woman who was confined to a room on the second floor. This room had padded walls to stop her injuring herself, but like Rochester’s wife, Bertha, she also died in a fire.

Definitely it was too good a yarn not to re-use and develop then. It also well illustrates another aspect of the on-going writerly process – the jackdaw syndrome of gathering in every shiny fragment and titillating curiosity just in case such treasured little nuggets may one day serve some plot.

Anyway, I will finish this present ramble with the Jane Eyre description of Thornfield Hall. Take a look again at the photo of North Lees. What do you think – a convincing source for Rochester’s domain of dark secrets and the scene of Bertha Rochester’s shocking demise?

I stepped over the threshold. It was a fine autumn morning; the early sun shone serenely on embrowned groves and still green fields; advancing on to the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

The Monkeys’ Wedding: where rain meets sun

 

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Photo copyright 2015 Tish Farrell. Art copyright Kathleen Collins Howell

The Monkeys’ Wedding  was my first children’s short story. I wrote it while we were living in Zambia (see Letters from Lusaka 1 & 2) . It was also the first piece of work accepted for publication. This stroke of luck was due to my good friend, artist and illustrator, Kathleen Howell. At the time she was Professor of Children’s Illustration at SUNY Buffalo, and had received several freelance commissions from America’s well beloved children’s magazine group, Cricket.

Unbeknownst to me she had sent a copy of my story to the then Art Director. He liked it and, after much editing, I received a contract. Time passed. Quite a lot of time in fact. Things, as I was to learn from future contracts, can move slowly at Cricket Magazine. They like to do their best by their writers and illustrators, and in each monthly edition of their magazines, combines submissions that complement one another, or follow a theme. In the meantime, Kathy said she would like to illustrate it, and finally in 2001, some 7 years after I’d written it, the story saw the light of day in Spider Magazine. It was also given a re-run in 2009.

The thing that sparked the story in the first place was the colloquial expression ‘a monkeys’ wedding’. It is possibly of Zulu origin, and I found it in my South African Pocket Oxford Dictionary, the only dictionary I could find to buy in Lusaka. (There were hardly any books in Zambia in the early 1990s).  The  phrase means simultaneous sunshine and rain, and I was so pleased to discover it, I set about creating my own folk story to explain it.

And so evolved the humorous tale of the monkey chief who was about to marry off his daughter, but made the tactical error of inviting everyone except Rain to the wedding.  Rain, in a big sulk, then drenches the forest for days. Something has to be done, or the wedding will be a wash-out.

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Copyright 2001 Spider Magazine: August 2001 and September 2009

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It’s interesting re-reading the text some 20 years on. I probably wouldn’t write it quite this way now, but Kathy’s illustrations are still brilliant. The top photo is some of her original artwork done with mixed media collage.

And now here’s a photo of an actual ‘monkeys’ wedding’ taken at Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko, in Kenya during a sudden brief and sunny deluge. This place, with its many vervet monkeys, was also a source of inspiration for the story. Aaah. Happy days of finding monkeys under the bed, or rifling through my bag.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Jennifer Nichole Wells  Please go here for more bloggers’ rainy renditions in the One Word Photo Challenge

Early Edition: Mau Mau Brother

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An exciting little parcel arrived last week – copies of my latest quick-read for teens (or even for adults) in Ransom’s Shades 2.0 series. It’s a small, neat book. Pocket sized. As per the Shades’ format, it is a novelised short story, the text broken down into brief chapters, the whole designed for readers who find bigger books, and dense text too daunting to tackle. The pages have much white space, and the story’s 5,000 words are spread over 64 pages, which of course makes it easier for anyone to read. The aim is to build reading muscles and so (hopefully) nurture a love of books.

But if the books are small-scale, there is nothing ‘slight’ about their content. Their themes are of adult interest too. As a writer I can think of no bigger challenge than to woo readers who would probably rather not read. It unavoidably demands your crispest most affecting prose.

I knew, too, that historical fiction can be off-putting to many teen boys. In Mau Mau Brother, then,  I used first person, present-tense narrative to make events more immediate. The story tells of the 1950s uprising against British rule in Kenya as seen through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Thuo. This perspective on what happened is not widely known outside Kenya; the British authorities deliberately destroyed many records.  But for Thuo there many kinds of war – not only with the British, but also with the African Home Guard, and even with his own freedom fighter brother whom he blames for all his troubles. But in the end, the biggest war he  has to fight is with himself.

And now for an extract:

The British are bombing Kenya’s highland forests to flush out the freedom fighters. Thuo and his family have been driven off their farms and made to live under curfew in a fortified village. Their every move is ruled by the African Home Guard. Then one night Thuo’s elder brother, Kungu,  a seasoned fighter, finds his way to Thuo’s hut. He is wounded, and sick, and  Thuo is faced with the starkest choice – to inform on his brother, or risk detention and death to help him.

 

After the plane goes, Njonjo whispers that he’s overheard the Home Guards talking.

‘They know Kungu is near,’ he hisses. ‘Tomorrow the British soldiers will sweep this part of the Reserve.’

That night we sit in our hut ,weighed down with fear, expecting the worst. I am stunned when Kungu says, ‘I must leave now.’

‘But how?’ I cry.

This time I am more scared for him than for me. His brow glows with sweat. He still cannot walk properly.

‘The way I came, through the barbed wire.’

‘But the ditch. The stakes.’

‘I will roll down. Crawl out. Like a cockroach. Have no fear, little brother.’

‘But where will you go?’

‘A cave I know. I once shared it with a she-leopard.’

I shiver. A window on hell has just swung wide. I see the big cat’s yellow eyes, the white fangs. Then I see the falling bombs, hear elephants screaming, the rifles’ crack-crack, feel the breath of a pseudo-gangster on my neck.

The words fly from my mouth before I can stop them. But, once said, I cannot take them back.

‘I’m coming too.’

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

Taking the slow road ~ tarrying not typing(#mywritingprocess)

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On the road at #mywritingprocess with thanks to Tiny at tinylessonsblog.com

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As others on this writerly blog tour have said, some writers are the bees’ knees at doing anything but write. I would be one of them. When the time comes to sit down at the desk there is the sudden compulsion to go somewhere else – anywhere else. This morning I left the computer to scrub the grout between the bathroom tiles. (So absorbing). Later I mooned over pots of recently sown runner beans, and what? Waited for them to grow? Of course. No writing skills needed in Beanstalk Land, only nifty footwork to elude man-eating giants. (Hm. And I could pick up a golden harp while I was there; learn to play, might inspire me to…) You get the picture.

So what is this doing something else all about? OCDD – obsessive compulsive displacement disorder? Why do we put ourselves through this? It was the first question I asked myself when Helen Kuusela aka Tiny at www.tinylessonsblog.com invited me to join this blog tour. I was so busy asking it, I forgot to thank her. So thank you again, Tiny, and hello to everyone on this fascinating writing safari. I forgive you, one and serially, for putting me on the spot.

As to the OCDD, I have a theory, one based on extensive personal observation. When procrastination sets in, and especially after an early full-of-promise burst, your inner truth-teller is trying to make contact with your writing brain. Something is not quite adding up. This is the moment for some pointed self-examination: are you writing yourself into a dead end? Have you started in the right place? Do the voice/situation/setting ring true? Is your plot/concept/premise sound, and does it truly have sufficient substance and energy to become the story/novel/poem you envisaged? Are you writing from within, or only from the surface?

These can be very painful questions and, rather than rolling them around your mind, I find asking them outright and OUT LOUD has better results. The inner truth-teller seems to respond better to vocalized interrogation. Also, the process of outlining the work to an audience, and by that I mean a willing listener who does not interrupt, can reveal both the intrinsic problems and the possible solutions. As you talk, the remedies to stuckness will likely pop out of your mouth. Listen out for them. A passive listening post is thus an essential aid. Your dog, cat or canary would be a good choice. Successful children’s writer, Michael Morpurgo, says he first outlines his stories to his sheep. And as I write this, I’m thinking that a Dictaphone could be a good idea too. If anyone has other notions on this, please tell me.

And now for THE questions:

1) What am I working on right now? In my head, filing cabinets and paper piles I have many works in various stages of creation: picture book scripts, teen novels, a grandiose scheme (possibly two novels for adults) set in colonial East Africa. This last project I’ve been working on for several years – stalled at various points by doubt; then by the annoying tick that says I need to do more research. (This can be another OCDD trap, so it’s wise to keep checking). I am heartened, though, when I hear writers such as Barbara Kingsolver say that it took her nearly thirty years to acquire the wisdom to write the magnificent Poisonwood Bible, or that Tolkein found himself stuck in the Mines of Moria for a whole year, wondering how to write his way out. Such admissions remind me (once I have checked back with myself AGAIN) that the time it takes to finish a piece of work, is the time it takes to finish it. Not everyone can write a book a year. And now I think of it, I’m sure I read  that the marvellous short story writer, Alice Munro, takes eighteen months to write a single story. And when you read her, you know why. She distils whole novels into her short form.

For now, I’m recycling my ‘back catalogue’ of published short stories, creating new editions as Kindle e-books. I have just kindled Losing Kui, a novella originally published by Cicada Magazine in the U.S. a few years ago. On one level it is a tragi-comedic view of everyday life in a fictitious East African country during the late ‘90s. On another, you might call it an allegory, but I leave it to readers to decide what I mean by that.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? I am truly not a fan of categories, although I know marketing persons insist on them. What matters to me as a reader and writer is a well-crafted story, whether it is a 300-word picture book, Hilary Mantel’s Booker winning Wolf Hall or a Lee Child thriller. Most of my published work comprises short stories/novellas that are accessible to both adults and teens, and so I suppose you could call them crossover literature. Books for young people are anyway not so hide-bound, and may combine several so-called genres: real-life and historical narrative inter-threading with fantasy/magic realism. I find myself increasingly attracted to this combination.

3) Why do I write what I do? I had always meant to be a writer, but it was only when I went to live in Africa during the 1990s that I found a REASON to become one. In Kenya I was confronted with big landscapes and big human issues in which my own country had long played a questionable part. Suddenly I had a viewpoint and a focus and a territory. I was incensed too, by the wholesale imposition of western ‘values’ that left young Africans thinking it uncivilised that their forebears lived in mud and thatch homes. That’s one of the things that spurred me to write contemporary fiction for African young people. See (Latest books).

Some 14 years after returning to the UK, I’m still teasing out stories begun in Africa. I keep meaning to head for other lands, and one of my Ransom quick-reads for teens, Stone Robbers, is set in Guatemala. I suppose I am driven by the desire to tell stories about people who do not have a voice in the wider world, or who live in ways that are fast disappearing. In the margins between tradition and consumer modernity there are the kinds of drama and conflict that every story needs to make it work.

4) How does my writing process work? My people always arrive first. Even if I can’t clearly visualise them, I have a strong sense of them and their particular dilemma. After nearly 20 years of writing I have amassed quite a crowd, all waiting for their stories to happen/move on/finish. To discover what their stories may be, I always do a lot of research – too much probably. But without fail, the ‘what happens’ always emerges from this reading. In that sense, I do not make things up. How the works come together thereafter depends on finding some sort of imperative. This could be a writing competition deadline, or a publisher’s call for a certain kind of work. As Tiny says in her post, you do need deadlines. And perhaps, to come full circle, a lot of writer’s OCDD is also down to not knowing who will want to read/publish the work once it is done. While it remains unfinished, both failure and success are forever postponed. Keeping to your chosen path is hard to do, and I’ve written more on this HERE. But now please meet Celestine Nudana from Ghana, West Africa. clip_image002 She will be heading out on the next leg of  the #mywritingprocess tour (26 May).  She has been blogging at Reading Pleasure since 2012: http://readinpleasure.wordpress.com/  and believe me it is always a pleasure to visit her there. 

Celestine is Senior Assistant Registrar at the University of Professional Studies, Accra, Ghana. She is married and has three boys. She attended the University of Ghana, Legon, where she read English and Theatre Arts, majoring in play writing. She also has a Masters in International Affairs. As well as being a passionate reader and book reviewer, she has also developed a special talent for writing haiku, although she says she is still at the learning stage. Even so, her work has been included in two recent anthologies: Western Haiku: A Collection, and Ballads, bothproduced by Dagda Publishing UK, an  independent publisher who aims to show-case the freshest poetry and literature by new writers from around the world. The works are available as e-books. She has also had her flash fiction published in1 Photo 50 Authors 100 Words edited by Madison Woods.

She says of herself, “I am a romantic at heart, and love a good romance story, though I shy away from erotica. Almost all my poems focus on love, or aspects of it.” Celestine has written romantic fiction for serialization in several Ghanaian newspapers, and deployed her play writing skills to produce radio serial dramas that deal with topics including child health and female sexual reproductive health. So here is a woman who writes on many fronts. I’m looking forward to hearing what she has to say about her writing life.

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Now here is my second writer introduction. She was a bit held up, so this is a last minute addition. I’ll let her speak for herself:

 

Hello! My name is Vashti Quiroz-Vega. I’m a writer of Suspense, Fantasy and Horror. I also enjoy mixing in some Humour and Romance into my stories. From the time I was a young kid, writing has been my passion. I’ve always been a writer; I just didn’t know it until  much later. For me, it is easier to express my thoughts on paper than with the spoken word. I enjoy making people feel an array of emotions with my writing. I like my audience to laugh one moment, cry the next and clench their jaws after that. My love of animals and nature are often incorporated in my stories. You’ll read intriguing things about various animals, nature and natural disasters commingled with my character-driven novels. I love to read almost as much as I love to write. Some of my favourite authors are Stephen King, M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, J. R. R. Tolkein, J. K. Rowling and Dan Brown.

Vashti's Web Photo (361x640)

http://vashtiqvega.wordpress.com

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RELATED POSTS:

This fiction writer’s path: five things learned along the way

Writing tips: Knowing your place

Errant muse? There’s still life at the allotment

TO SEE OTHER WRITERS’ POSTS IN THIS TOUR, GO TO THE READER AND USE THE SEARCH TAG: #mywritingprocess

This fiction writer’s path: five things learned along the way

 

 

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1) Swimming not drowning: there will be (many) false starts

I associate intending to be a writer with learning to swim. I was ten, in my last year of primary school, when I told Mr. Williams, my very Welsh head teacher, that I meant to be a writer. I said it with great certainty, and he listened in all seriousness. He was someone I trusted implicitly. He was also the person who taught me to swim, and to me, decades later, the way he did it still seems a little miracle.

There were several non-swimmers in the senior class and one day Mr. Williams decided to remedy this life-threatening deficiency. Once a week for several weeks he drove us to the swimming pool in the school minibus. He made no concession to the occasion and still wore his smart grey headmasterly suit. Looking back, he probably did this on purpose. It showed he meant business and we were not there to play. The suit’s material had a soft metallic sheen and probably went by the name of Tricel. It somehow had a part to play.

After a couple of trips to the pool I had fully grasped the mechanics of swimming, but was unwilling to give up my rubber ring. Mr. Williams, however, was determined. He told me to walk twenty paces into the pool’s shallow end. He told me to take off the rubber ring. Then standing at the pool’s edge, he squatted down so low that his trousers strained across his knees and shone like silver. His eyes levelled with mine as I stood there – in the water – shivering – without my protecting ring. He told me to swim but I kept standing and staring at his knees, feeling silly and helpless. Then suddenly out flew his arms in a welcoming embrace. ‘Come on,’ he cried. ‘Swim to me. YOU.CAN.DO.IT.’ And such was his look of unconditional expectation that I took to the water and swam.

And the point of this story? Becoming a writer/maker/artist means learning to  grow and nurture your inner Mr. Williams. Along the creative path there may be few external expressions of encouragement. But without the deep-down core of self-belief you will not have the resilience to stay the course, bear the disappointments, handle the rejection slips, or to toil and toil alone for the days, months and years it will take to learn your craft. All of which is not to discourage, but to say that you really have to want to do this.

2) Having formed your intention, do NOT wait for inspiration to strike: you can wait till the crack of doom

Of course learning to swim is not the same as being a good swimmer who can swim fifty lengths with ease and feel quite at home in the water. To become a skilled artisan of any kind, there is the long haul of apprenticeship, probably one that will never end. I, though, and like many would-be writers, went for years, carrying in my head the apparently foregone conclusion that one day inspiration would strike and I would begin to write my own stories instead of reading other people’s.

It rarely, if ever happens this way. Besides which, inspiration is only the starting point, the ‘ah-ha’ moment when your attention fixes on an overheard conversation, or collides with a character on a bus, or gets hooked on some bizarre news event that starts you asking the kind of questions that kick off the story-making process. Mostly, though, you need to seek it out. Because the fact is, even if you are not actually writing, you must be doing the internal work, mentally exploring the stories that you might one day tell, gathering material, keeping watch, feeding that tiny flame of an inkling that says ‘I do have a story to tell’. ‘I do have something important to say.’

Inspiration, then, does not arrive ‘out of blue’ or occur in a vacuum; it needs one, two or several things to rub together. You could say it’s a bit like the slow-going process of rubbing dry sticks together, and trialling likely bits of kindling to get a fire started. In that initial whoosh of a blaze taking hold all is very exciting, but it is only the start. Now the hard work really begins – keeping the fire going, finding suitable material that will burn well – fast or slowly or long enough to cook your dinner. In other words, flash-in-the-pan, quick-fire notions (inspiration) are the easy part. Thereafter comes the sourcing of materials, planning, construction and general project management. You can only truly learn how to do this by doing it. So how to begin?

3) Do not fall into the trap of thinking that reading other writers will drown out your own small voice before you even start: read, read, read…

As an adult, my writing work was largely academic: dissertations, reports, preparing educational materials in various museums. Somewhere along the line I stopped reading fiction; I feared that to do so would distract me from finding my own inspiration, my own voice, my own stories. I have met other beginner writers who said they did the same thing, and especially when it came to books that they thought might ‘compete’ with their own ideas. Yet not to read widely is another form of writer’s self-sabotage. Writers need to read anything and everything they can, and across all genres, and they need to read with attention and discernment. For instance, you can learn a huge amount about story construction by studying an infant’s picture book that contains only around 30 words (Pat Hutchins Rosie’s Walk).

In fact some of the best-crafted storytelling on the planet is for young people – and here I’m thinking of writers such as Richard Peck, Sharon Creech, Robert Cormier, Kate di Camillo, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Donnelly, David Almond. Reading good books with all senses attuned is akin to having mental conversations with other writers; far from swamping your own style/voice/subject matter, listening carefully to what they say and how they say it can help release your very own form of creative expression. This is not about copying ; it is about finding your own truthful response to other writers’ work. Writing a book or a story or a poem is not a contest with anyone else. It is your book, story, poem. Only you can write it. And if in doubt, think ‘Mr. Williams’. At some point you have to get in there and swim.

But of course, having joined the fray, then comes the endurance testing and training, the honing of skills, and goal setting.

4) Being a good writer is not the same as being a good storyteller

Some people are natural storytellers, and especially so when they come from families or cultures where oral storytelling is still practised. Even so, and no matter how you treat them later, it helps to learn the storytelling basics: the beginnings, middles and ends of a story, their possibilities, the ways to build tension and interest, how to manage revelation, crisis and resolution, what it takes to create believable worlds (real-life or science fiction), to breathe life into characters who will then ‘speak’ to readers, to make effective and affective use of language.

All these skills can be learned to some extent by much well-directed reading, including studying a few how-to-write books on the way. But taking out a subscription to a good creative writing magazine or attending a class are the more interactive and less lonely options. The disciplines of entering magazine contests or doing class exercises – reading others’ work with interest rather than envy, writing to deadlines, word counts and prescribed themes are all worth cultivating. They all build the kind of writing muscles you need to best deliver ‘the what’ of the creative process – the  story.

5) Writing fiction does not mean ‘making things up’; it is all about building convincing worlds.

This is something that is easily misunderstood, and it took me some time to grasp explicitly. Fiction reveals imagined worlds and their inhabitants in ways that are truthful in. Integrity and authenticity are key objectives. The setting may be a medieval Russian monastery, a London secondary school, or a planet with two suns, but it must ring true for the reader. Its special characteristics will add depth and texture to the narrative, but above all, they will be dynamic – informing, shaping, adding drama to the characters’ behaviour/situation/dilemmas. This requires considerable research and construction work by the writer, but with the caveat that, at the end of the process, only the writer ever needs to know all this stuff. The reader wants only the most telling details, the ones that, like literary hyperlinks, will take them straight into that special place and engage them wholeheartedly with the characters’ lives. (A fine example of this is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where she uses historical, social and political contexts to reveal the life and times of Thomas Cromwell.)

To achieve this level of ‘reality’ requires the writer to have strong reasons for telling a particular story. As I’ve said, creating a story from start to finish requires drive and stamina. Passion, pain, compassion and anger are great spurs, but their energy needs to be channelled judiciously. (No ranting or heavy-handed moralizing required and the writer’s self should keep well out of the way). The research part of the project may also demand a whole new reading schedule (encyclopaedias, atlases, internet content, telephone directories, newspapers etc) and, where possible, physically immersing yourself in the places where the story is set.

This is all about knowing your territory as an expert guide would know it. Only then can the alchemy begin. Or perhaps shape-shifting is a better analogy. Because this is one of the most important of all the things I have come to learn from the practise of being a writer: the writing must come from the inside out; writers must inhabit their character’s minds, shoes and underpants; whatever it takes to get inside their skin. For me, this usually means starting with the feet rather than the knickers department. When I wrote about a street girl called Jessicah, she was conjured by a ‘feeling’ in the balls of my feet as she tramped in thin-soled shoes through the African highlands. Years later I can still summon that particular sensation and know it is Jessicah, and start seeing the world again through her eyes. All of which is very strange when you think about it, and probably the reasons why most writers keep writing. For the final truth is that even well-published writers struggle to make a living from book sales alone. Writing then, first and foremost and anyway, has to be done for the love of the thing.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

Tish Farrell writes short fiction to entice unkeen teen readers to read in the Shades series at Ransom Publishing. She also writes for Heinemann Junior African Writers, Zimbabwe Publishing House and Phoenix Publishers East Africa. Her short story Flight came third in last year’s International Bath Short Story Award.

 

Writerly Reflections