Very much so.
I have come across an abundance of lists over the past few months depicting what a writer needs to help them work. Some are what you would expect, others are out of the ordinary, for everyone is different. So I thought I’d give it a go myself and I found that it wasn’t that difficult to compile; I simply looked at my writing routine and the elements involved that help me write.
As you can see in the picture above, number one is absolutely a cup of tea. You may think that it’s not very professional or not that important, but for me it is a necessity. For as long as I can remember I have always had a cup of tea next to me when writing, and now psychologically, I struggle to get going without one. So god help me if we ever run out of milk.
As we move further into the technological age, I fear for the life span of pen and paper. I still write by hand before I even get close to Microsoft Word. I love stationary for some strange reason so writing with a beautiful pen makes the whole process more enjoyable. I believe it is a more personal way to write and feel much more connected to the piece than I would say if I typed it straight onto a computer. ‘What a waste of time!’ I hear you say… but to me it gives me a sense of confidence that once an idea begins to brew I wouldn’t be distracted by the computer and its distracting pathways. Susan Sontag sums it up quite perfectly for me on The Daily Pickings website. She says ‘I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific.’
Number three is what I’ve come to call a Research Burst. Now by this I don’t necessarily mean sitting for hours scouring the Internet so not to be mistaken for procrastination, but rather have a quick read for ten to fifteen minutes, preferably on the subject about which you are writing. E.g. I’m writing about war time Liverpool at the moment so before I start to write I may pick up a book of the same topic and get myself in that time frame as best I can, henceforth a ‘research burst’.
The next point that is important to me when writing is making sure I have plenty of natural light. I’m unsure why this is needed more than a simple lightbulb like everyone else, but I find that the ambience and lighting in the room affects the way I write i.e. how much I can come up with in one sitting. And I don’t have seasonal affective disorder for writers or anything, I just know natural light works better for me and my carefully selected pen.
Ssshh! Number five on my list is quietness. Simple as that. As little noise as possible. But I dont want to produce a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign just yet…
A couple of weeks ago, my MA class were asked to choose a paragraph of prose that we admired, from a writer’s point of view. Each person’s choice was different from the rest which made for a very interesting session; we went from the works of Virginia Woolf to Jack Kerouac to Raymond Carver, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Orwell. I chose a piece from Helen Forrester’s Two Pence to Cross The Mersey:
‘It was a moment of terrifying revelation and I started to run away from myself, pushing the pram recklessly through groups of irate pedestrians, nearly running down a neatly gaitered bishop. Every instinct demanded that I run away and hide, and for a few minutes my feet were winged. Halfway up the hill, back in the shadow of St. Luke’s, however, under-nourishment had its say, and I sank exhausted on the church steps, while Avril giggled contentedly in the pram after her rapid transit up the street. I was disgusted with myself. I felt I could have done more. I was old enough to know that I should wash myself; at least with cold water. And if I could wash garments through for the children, I could have put some of my own through the same water. I realised, with some astonishment, that I had always been told what to do. The lives of all the children had until recently been strictly regulated by a whole hierarchy of domestics, some of them heavy-handed, and a father who had, at times, used a cane with sharp effect. I washed when told to do so, went to school when told to go, however irksome it seemed, got out my playthings when permission was given. Disobedience was a crime and to query or object to adult orders, which were given without any supporting explanation or reason for them, was quite unthinkable.’
I decided on this particular passage because, not only do I admire Forrester as a writer, I believe she represents space and time brilliantly. Her technique for characterisation is admirable and as a writer I like to emulate her style, and this is particularly appropriate for my present novel idea. We read all our passages out to the rest of our class and discussed each one.
However, this was not the end of it. Our tutor handed out a passage from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, then another, and another, and one more final handout. You can imagine what we were all thinking, that is a lot of handouts. One thing…they were all written in a different style to Flaubert’s original piece. Again, we discussed each text and fronted our ideas.
The final part of the exercise was to re-write Flaubert’s piece in the style of the writer we had originally chosen. At first I thought this was quite a daunting task because a writer’s style is their own and powerful it may be. However after I brought a bit of Forrester to Flaubert it turned out to be a very useful task, and it can be done with any piece of work. So this is a writerly technique that I will absolutely use in the future to recreate ideas and improve on my own writer’s style.
We are all in a certain place at a specific moment in time. As you may have guessed I love using images in writing and creating a sense of place. Scenes in fiction have to be set somewhere; not only does setting characterise it can also dramatise a piece of writing. Setting can make your fictional world more convincing for your reader. It gives it life. If the setting is strong enough it sometimes becomes a character in its own right. In The Road To Somewhere, Helen Newall sums up setting in the following: “If narrative is a journey, character being the driver, and plot the vehicle, then setting is the scenery along the way.” And where would we be without scenery? Below are some pictures I’ve taken over the past few years that have sparked ideas. Take a look at what’s around you and whether there is a story hiding, 9 times out of 10 there will be.
I am aware that the concept of time and place is very strong in my writing, not just fiction but poetry too (see Stories And Such). Setting is an important part of my current piece. Cormorano is all about Liverpool. I want the reader to feel as if they have been placed right in the centre of Liverpool, to feel the hope and spirit. Cormorano is just as much about our beloved city as it is about the war. I want the setting to not just create character but enhance the narrative, and be the main connection between me, the writer, and you, my reader. See Current Novel section for more.
My latest project has led me back in time to my family’s heritage and so far it has been thoroughly enjoyable. Admittedly, researching a piece is one of my favourite elements of writing. I like to write about the things that have shaped our lives, whether they be happy or sad, but most of all I believe it’s important to know where we come from.
In the previous post is an excerpt from Cormorano. This is set in wartime Liverpool and based on my Nanna’s life as a young girl. Her family moved from Picinisco to Liverpool and settled in the Little Italy area of the city. Like many grandparents do, she told me stories from the war that changed the way I think about the world. Going through that at such a young age is unimaginable to me but I want to try my best to tell the story of where she grew up and what it was like to live through the war years.
Cormorano is the latest piece I am working on. As do many other writers, I draw upon past experiences, family history, and images to create a story. This piece is set in war time Liverpool but with a twist. It focuses on the Little Italy area of the city and on the protagonist Joseph Ventre. My grandmother grew up in this area and time so there are stories a plenty. Below is an excerpt of the piece. Please read, enjoy, and try to figure out the title
‘The siren wails just after nine o’clock. I jump up and Mam is already pulling her shawl around her shoulders. The sound pierces the air, filling my body with dread and fear. I try to find my way to the door in the pitch black, pulling my jumper on and taking my gas mask from its box. I tie the laces on my shoes; one has got a hole in the heel. Mam stops dead and holds a finger up in the air.
‘Listen.’ I turn my ear to the window. ‘Can you hear the planes?’ She stays quiet. They’re coming all right. God knows how many there is tonight. Mam grabs a bag she has ready in case of an air raid. As we leave the house, Uncle Fran runs down the street to get us. I know Mam feels safer when he’s around. He’s tall like Dad was, well built too. He hides his messy black hair under a hat; sometimes I think he sleeps in it. The siren becomes louder as we reach the end of the street. A fire bobby turns the handle at the top of the siren tower, shouting at the crowds to wear their masks. In the distance the sky is a mixture of deep orange and black. They’ve started bombing the docks again and I pray that the Cormorano make it till morning. It’s a few minutes walk to the nearest shelter. I strap my mask tight onto my head. Every breath I take is shorter than the last. Babies are screaming, mothers are scared; the men lead the way onto Scotland Road. I don’t know how everyone’s going to fit inside the shelter. Panicking, I reach for Mam’s hand and follow Uncle Fran across the pitch black cobbled streets. Up ahead, seven planes fly lower than normal, lined up perfectly. They’re heading our way. The noise rips through my ears. I feel the vibration in my chest. People are shouting, ‘Quick, get the kids inside!’ ‘Pass me the baby!’ ‘Oh God, this is it, hurry up!’’
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Personal site of Jane Davis, Founder & Director of The Reader. Mainly reading & thoughts about reading, plus some of my obsessions.
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a collection of words about my average, bog-standard life accompanied by some sub-par illustrations that depict selected moments in said life
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