description

bluebell wood

Write where you know

Part of writing ‘what you know’ is writing ‘where you know’.

You can accomplish a huge amount via distance research, but there is no substitute for visiting the place you want to write about. If a place is too far (out of your wallet), then try to visit somewhere similar. You might miss small local nuances but there are quite a lot of similarities between one beech wood and another, or between one heathland marsh and another. Research may be enough to fill in the gaps, provided you have a sense of what facts you need to check.

On fieldtrips, I don’t make many notes about the places I go. Sometimes I draw little (bad) maps. But mostly I take photos. For me, photos are the best form of notes about places, not just in terms of what I saw when I was there but also in terms of what I felt and smelt and heard. With a little thought and practice, it’s quite easy to figure out how to take photos that will trigger your other senses. Just don’t get caught up in taking pretty holiday snaps. Fieldtrip photos are there as a record. Their purpose is to jog your memory. Pretty pictures are great but they’re a separate thing. Make sure you take both when you’re on a fieldtrip. Also, remember to take both close-up detail and long-shots so you have a sense of the lay out and where things are in relation to each other.

The Bone Dragon is set on the Cambridgeshire fens. Roughly. Give or take. Thereabouts. It’s not set in a particular village or town: the place isn’t even given a name. But it is somewhere that could exist. And it’s clearly roughly where it would be if it did.

I lived in Cambridge for more than four years, studying and working, so I know the town very well. Of course Cambridge isn’t the fens, but it’s geographically very close and it has the Backs and a canal stretch and lots of things I have very vivid memories of that are just the same as out in the fens.

Now, I have never spent much time in the fens themselves, but I have visited various parts of them so I know which aspects of Cambridge are the same as out in the wilds. Also, spent a lot of my teens imposing upon my lovely long-suffering auntie and uncle who live in the bit of Essex right by Cambridge (so on the edge of fen country). The areas are relatively similar, especially when you get out into the wetter, wilder places – which I did, since I’ve always loved walking… and exploring every possible path. (What a lovely sewage works I discovered on one such foray!)

When I was writing The Bone Dragon and needed some fresh inspiration, but didn’t have a lot of time, there were two forests nearby with marshy heathland that I could squelch about in. So between my memories of Cambridge, my memories of the Essex wilds near the fens, trips to the fens themselves, and heathland squelchings, I felt I could conjure the ‘where’ of The Bone Dragon into being in my study any time I needed. To what extent I succeeded, I invite you to see for yourself by reading my book (subliminal message: buy my book! buy my book!).

So when I say ‘write where you know’, I don’t mean you can only write about the place you live (or places you’ve lived), but think carefully about whether you would write better if you set your story somewhere you know or somewhere like a place you know. If you’ve no real life experience of a similar place, it will be very hard to build a realistic sense just from research. You probably won’t be able to say very much about the place or you’ll risk straining the reader’s credulity if it’s somewhere they know or like somewhere they know. The tricky thing is cities: many are far more different than first thought would suggest.

If the ‘where’ of your story doesn’t matter very much, it’s easy to write believably so long as you don’t go into much detail. But it’s a pity to lose the depth that setting can bring to a story. If you’ve got believable characters walking around in a grey, blurry world, readers aren’t going to engage as much. And it entirely rules out the possibility of establishing a setting that is almost a character in its own right – something that’s important to me as a writer.

So when you’re starting out with a new idea have a think. Where do you know? Chances are there are a lot of wheres you could write about. Why not pick one of them, or somewhere similar, rather a place/type of place you have no lived experience of at all?

There’s always the temptation to just invent your where, as I did with The Bone Dragon. And that’s fine, but your where has to be plausible for its rough, give-or-take, hereabouts setting. The where of The Bone Dragon may exist only in my head, but if I put a lot of cacti in it I’d have a problem even so. As it is, I couldn’t take you to the specific places Evie and the Dragon visit at night, but I could take you to lots of places that would do just as well. And knowing that gives me a different sense, when I’m in the World of the Book, of actually being in a real place: a place I can step into (if only in my head) and look around for inspiration. It’s a place I can explore whenever I want to because in my head there is a full three-dimensional fenland village that supplies all the sensory input I could possibly need without my having to build it in afresh every time I sit down at my computer.

My new book is set in Cambridge, but down the line there will be books set in a beech wood and books set in a version of rural Italy and books set in London… I have a lot of wheres to draw on. If you think about it, you’ll probably find that you do too.

 

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frosted leaves

Photography and Creative Writing

Hopefully I’ll be able to share my super-exciting (at least to me) news about The Bone Dragon soon, but in the meantime I thought I’d do a post on a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: whenever I plan a writing workshop, I often start thinking about how to use images… This may seem completely counter-intuitive but, for me, makes perfect sense.

I think it’s because I’m a very visual writer. I write books as if I’m creating a film, which is probably why I’m finding the transition into writing screenplay treatments far easier than I thought it would be (though, to be fair, it’s early days!).

Writing, for me, is about immersing myself in the world so that I actually *see* the place where the characters are around me. I can touch what is around them. The weather is their weather, the season their season. I write dialogue by being inside the character who is speaking and seeing what comes out (or what doesn’t when the writing is going badly). That’s just how it is for me. The ‘words’ bit comes in as I try to put down the most important parts of experiencing the world and life of the story.

You could write a whole book about what people think, feel, see, smell, etc. in one minute of one day. It might well be an enormously boring book, but you probably wouldn’t run short of content. Experience is so enormous… Which means that writing is very much a filtering and selecting process. I write as if I’m in a movie but, just like when filming, what I’m really capturing is a series of still images running one after the other. Individually, each is like a photograph.

So how do I decide what to put into words? It’s probably easiest to talk about description in this regard as this is where the process simplest. When writing description, I try to put down an image-in-words that captures my aesthetic: what I think is beautiful and interesting. I don’t try to be unique, though I do try to focus on what is different from my aesthetic and other people’s.

I also think about both what could be captured better in a photo and what can’t be captured in a still image at all. If a picture would say it better, should you really try to write 1000 words that won’t be as compelling? Why not look for the thing within the story that couldn’t be captured effectively as an image? Let the reader imagine the photograph stills that work as pure images: let them see their own version. Instead, write the images that don’t work as photographic still: those are the ones readers can’t come to for themselves. Those are the ones that you, as the writer, must give them.

Ultimately, the reason I start thinking of images when planning a writing workshop is that they give people an insight into their own aesthetic that is simpler to break down than 1000 words of their own prose or poetry. This, in turn, gives a window into thinking about voice and all the things that make writers unique.

Voice isn’t just a matter of narrative style or vocabularly… It should imbue every aspect of a book. But that’s a pretty tall order for any writing workshop. Starting from images lets people focus on the still photographs that make up the ‘movie’ of the book that runs in the reader’s imagination. It let’s you take things step by step and part by part. And that’s always a good place to start when learning.

This enchantment of ice and crystal

frosted rose

In honour of last week’s Dragon-worthy frost, some photos that made me think of a particular scene from the book.

frosted fens

… the grass is so thickly frosted, every blade sharp-coated with ice…

frosted acer

The skeleton of the tree glows in the frozen night air as if displaying its soul to the heavens.

frosted acer leaves

The acer is a marvel of white over red.

frosted flowers

… diamond-flashes catch off the newly strange plants in the beds …

frosted seed pods

Now everything is shaded in grey and silver and white.

frosted ivy

Everything solid has turned to crystal.