Is it you?

I’m going through some notes for a talk I’m giving on writing… and one of the things that people new to writing don’t properly think about is who is actually telling the story. I know when I write a story I sometimes go back and change the narrator or the narrative for various reasons, and I know I have preferred ways of using a narrator – maybe most writers do!

The narrator is an important and vital aspect of your story and quite often who’s telling the story is established in the first few pages.

So, who is telling the story?

  • is it you? The unknown all-seeing narrator, who knows what is going on in every character’s mind and who can see it from everyone’s point of view?
  • is it from a single character’s perspective and if so is the character a main player or an observer? is the story told in the first person? Is the story told as if looking over a single character’s shoulder and seeing inside their head?
  • do several characters tell the story in the first person?
  • is the story told from several different points of view? If an incident occurs the different characters would understand different things, feel different things, maybe even see different things.
  • stories can even be told in the second person – this often happens in songs

Even in a short story, and more especially perhaps in a short story, all these aspects are really  important so the reader can properly understand and see what the writer wants them to see.

If you want to find out more of my thoughts on writing, here is a link to my little book So You Want To Write:

http://amzn.eu/hW23REC

 

Writing about your family history (v) … where were they? And what did they do there?

Another aspect of telling a story is place and location. Maybe you know the places where your ancestors lived – maybe you still live in the same location. If they came from far away, even if you haven’t ever visited, with the internet it’s easy to find pictures and maps, and old pictures and maps too of what it was like when Great-Aunt Jane or a red-headed blacksmith ancestor lived there.  You can go on street view and follow their footsteps from home to where they worked, from their little village to the local town where your farming ancestor might have taken his animals to market.

As for the plot or narrative of your story, you have the outline of someone’s life, fill in the gaps – find pictures or visit the church where they were baptised or married, look up contemporary newspapers and directories to see what happened in those years and who the neighbours and tradespeople were your family might have had dealing with.

Use what you know, and what you can find out, but use your imagination to! Your story can start with a maybe… ‘maybe one bright spring morning Jane looked in the mirror and saw herself as a beautiful bride… today was the day she was to marry her beloved Arthur…’

Another way of making your stories accessible to others is to write the story of your investigation. What were the stories you heard as a child of great-aunt Jane? How did you find her in the records, did she go missing and you couldn’t trace her? Did she travel to somewhere you weren’t expecting? Did she have a first husband you didn’t know about, or children who lived with someone else… how did you track them down, what was the paper-trail? What were the stumbling blocks – how many Jane’s with the same name and birth date did you come across? How did you identify which one was yours? How many and what blind alleys did you go down? Which other interesting ancestors did you unexpectedly come across? The story of your journey through the records can be fascinating.

I have written a series of novels about someone searching for his family history; his non-literal journey follows their actual travels, from the Ukraine to Harwich, to Surrey, to my imaginary town of Easthope. His genealogical research gives him the tools to investigate other things, and people begin to commission him to solve their little mysteries, the woman who vanished from her car at the traffic lights, the mysterious but influential Moroccan an old lady brought back from a Mediterranean cruise, the death of a little girl in 1932… I have written five novels about my character Thomas Radwinter, the sixth should be available in May this year!!

Here is a link to my Radwinter novels:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/RADWINTER-5-Book-Series/dp/B072HTG366/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1518891228&sr=8-13&keywords=lois+elsden

My featured image shows the Portland Arms Hotel in Cambridge, where my granddad held the license from the mid 1920’s until 1950.

Should I kill him?

First of all, I have to reassure you that I don’t plan or intend to kill anyone! I am a pacifist so killing, wounding or hurting is right out of the window! However, as a fiction writer, sometimes things occur in my books which are just that, fiction. I don’t write thrillers or horror stories so compared to some novels, mine are rather tame – but gripping and engaging all the same!!

Going back to the question in the title… I am writing another Thomas Radwinter story; Thomas is an ordinary bloke, a small town part-time solicitor, part-time stay-at-home dad, and the books chart his  genealogical investigations which started off when he explored his own family history. As the series has progressed he has been asked to ‘investigate’ other things, mostly the sort of things which would not involve the police, a mysterious Moroccan brought back from a cruise by an old lady, a sinister Tibetan lama who has power over an ordinary teacher and father, the suspicious death of a school girl in 1931…

So now in the new story, Thomas has several things going on as well as juggling life with five children… you will have to read the stories to find out how he managed to have a big family so quickly… and an increasingly busy work-life as well as researching his wife’s family tree. One story line which has been poddling along (much like Thomas poddles along trying to cope with his hectic life) is of Darius who works at the local museum at the old Umbrella Factory who is being stalked by someone who regularly visits the place. It is a busy and popular venue for all sorts of activities and has a new and busy café;  and Darius has no idea who the stalker is; at first he pays no attention, but he becomes increasingly irritated and unsettled by it. As Thomas says

the stalker business, although creepy seems unthreatening. I know it can’t be nice to be watched… I mean supposing you accidental scratched your bum, or blew your nose in a not very successful way, or poured coffee down yourself… you wouldn’t want someone watching you, would you?

Darius is someone I have written about a couple of times… a character in search of a story, I guess, and he now has a place in this one… or has he? Sometimes with my writing unexpected things happen, unexpected to me, I mean, not just unexpected to the characters. Thomas was going round in circles a bit with this stalker-business and really not making any progress… and then Darius disappears, he just doesn’t turn up for work. Thomas is passing by his home and decides to knock on his door; knowing Darius had become very depressed, he thinks he might be just sitting at home unhappy and alone. However when Thomas arrives at his house, the door is open, and on going in Thomas finds him dead, and not only dead, but obviously murdered!

This was a terrible shock to Thomas as you might imagine, but it was also a surprise to me! When I sat back to think about what should happen next I became a little unsettled… I’d had Darius as a character for quite a while, and I didn’t really want him dead before he had told his story or had his story told… so I changed him. I took him out of this story and he has gone back in the ‘waiting’ file, to be replaced in this narrative by Fergus, who is a nerdy sort of a weedy chap with a look of Rupert Brooke (if anyone remembers him)

So now Fergus, not Darius is dead and I have had not exactly a crisis, but a sudden thought that maybe this is all getting too complicated. The police would be involved, Thomas’s investigation would be revealed, and it would all be taken out of Thomas’s hands. However, I really felt the story was getting a bit uninteresting, that there needed to be an incident of some sort to liven it up (I know in real life, the death of someone is dreadful, but in fiction it can keep the reader gripped trying to find out the who and why done it!)

Maybe instead of dying, Fergus should disappear – kidnapped/gone missing/run away/ trapped/breakdown –  but wait, in my story this is a plot-line already with another character!! This needs thinking about…

Am I juggling too many balls? Are there too many different things going on? Will the readers be groaning and tearing their hair out and hurling my book across the room or out of the window?

I must ponder on this, as Thomas would say (he does a lot of pondering) I’ve been in similar dilemmas before, lain awake wondering about story-lines and characters, or driven to the wrong destination because I’ve been thinking about the narrative, or got lost because I’m concentrating on the people inside my head not the real people I’m supposed to be meeting… Does this make it sound as if I’m losing my marbles? I’m sure other writers have similar issues… don’t they?

The Professor… again

Looking at different ways of telling true stories, so the bones of the narrative are there but the flesh and clothing are different, my writing group read some of the pieces I’ve shared here. One they particularity liked was ‘The Professor’ – I have shared it here before, but here it is again.

This really is a true story, although I’ve concealed the identities of those involved:

Snick was the most generous and kindly man who would open his home to anyone who had need of a meal, a chat, a whisky or two, so when the wife of an in-law asked if he could visit an old gentleman in a care home, an old gentlemen whose family all lived far away and could rarely come to see him, Snick was happy to go and meet him. The old chap’s grandson had been engaged to the in-law’s daughter, which is how there was a connection.

The old man was the father of a very well-known – famous in fact – actor, much respected and admired, and was the grandfather of the actor’s three children, all of whom became household names in varying fields.  I shall call the old man Mr Smith, and his son Raymond – nothing like their actual names!

Every week, but on different days, Snick would visit Mr Smith; he was an interesting old man, full of stories and still with great curiosity about the world despite being a little decrepit due to his age. After knowing him for several months, Snick invited him home for Sunday lunch, which Mr Smith very much enjoyed, especially meeting Snick’s family.

One day, when Snick visited, he found Mr Smith had something on his mind; his son Raymond, the famous actor, was visiting and he wanted to take him out for lunch but was hampered by his infirmity and the fact that he didn’t know which restaurant to go to. Snick asked if perhaps Raymond and the old man would like to come to lunch, chez Snick. The old man was delighted and excited, and so it was arranged.

Snick was on his own, his family away from home. He had pondered on the menu but happened to have been given a pheasant; however it was rather small for three people so as he also had some tenderloin of pork, he combined the two, a delicious meal was on the menu!

The visitors arrived and were welcomed.

“Ah, Professor! How kind of you to invite me and my father for lunch, delighted to meet you!” exclaimed Raymond.

Professor? Snick was not a professor – how mysterious, but before he could say anything the old man was telling Raymond what a wonderful friend ‘the professor’ was, how kind, how generous, and there was no opportunity to say ‘Actually, I’m not a professor‘. After a pre-lunch drink, with conversation flowing easily between the three men, they sat down to lunch.  The pork and pheasant dish, accompanied by perfectly cooked vegetables, including broccoli and runner beans, was greatly enjoyed, so much so there was little left for Snick to have as a meal the next day!

As the weather was clement, they took Mr Smith out for a walk round the village in his wheelchair, chatting easily and comfortable. Home for a cup of tea and then, with the old man flagging a little, it was time for them to leave.

After this, Snick continued to visit the care home, occasionally meeting Raymond on visits; he was always greeted as ‘Professor’, although the father and son did call him by his name in conversation. One day Snick received a call from the care home, not unexpected as the old man had been failing in his last few visits, but Mr Smith, at the age of ninety-four, had died peacefully. A few days later the care home rang again with details of the funeral, and Snick decided he would go along to say farewell to his elderly friend.

As Raymond and his children were so well-known, Snick anticipated that there might be a real crowd of onlookers as well as friends and family of Mr Smith. He decided that he would arrive just a little while before the service commenced, and just slip in at the back of the chapel. However when he arrived, he was greeted with cries of ‘the Professor! The Professor is here!‘ and an usher whisked him into the chapel to a reserved seat in the front pews.

After the service the family pressed him to come back to the ‘reception’ which he did, and much as he wanted to explain he was not and never had been a professor, he just let it go, and murmured he was ‘retired’.

Later he pondered on the mystery of it all… In fact his brother had been a professor, but there was no way the in-law who had originally asked him to visit Mr Smith would have confused them, especially as she had never met his brother. In the end, he decided that the in-law had deliberately promoted him… He didn’t mind. he had very much liked Mr Smith and Raymond, and the members of the family he had met… and being ‘the Professor’ had amused him… and it made a better story!

Something happened…

Many years ago I wrote a story called ‘A Strong Hand From Above’; I’ve not published and not sure I will – I may completely rewrite it, take the plot, take some of the characters and rewrite the whole thing. The end of the story is – I hoped when I wrote it, quite exciting, escape from death, a shoot up in the depths of a Welsh forest, but there is a misunderstanding between the two main characters, which is eventually righted on the last few pages.

When I finished it, all those years before, I kept on following the characters story in my head… and rather than it be happy ever after, it occurred to me that after such shocking events, and even with the happy ending, in reality the two main people would be quite traumatised, and it would probably effect their relationship. Their lives couldn’t go back to how they had been in the before, because they would always remember the horror.

I didn’t write a sequel to ‘Farholm’, another of my novels and the first I published, but again, the story of my characters, in this case Deke and Michael carried on – and I actually wrote quite a lot of it down. I was tempted to follow their lives – ad maybe I will one day… or maybe I will just take the idea of what happened to them and write about that with new characters.

In ‘The Stalking of Rosa Czekov’ I did write about the afterwards – before the novel begins Rosa is in a hostage situation, and the man who has taken her is shot dead, standing right beside her with a gun to her head – I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this! My story explores the effect of this on Rosa, her husband, her friends, and the person who may be stalking her – or is she imagining it, haunted by what she experienced?

I saw these swans and their cygnets…

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… and seeing them swimming along towards the little bridge was like the action in a story – and look there I am, the shadowy observer!

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… and after they have gone, there is just the merest trace of their trail through the duckweed, the event happened, and it left its trace!

More from the Umbrella Museum

It was week two of the writing course I’m on run by Jude and Alex from Bath: http://www.writingeventsbath.com/ – it’s taking place at the American Museum in Bath and we have been able to use the artefacts in the museum as stimulus for our guided writing.

Friends have asked my why, since I write full-time and have been self-publishing my books on Kindle, I think I need to go – I felt as if it’s time to stand back from what I wrote and the way I write and get some new ideas, maybe step out of my comfort zone; also it is always brilliant to meet other writers and talk about what we love doing and exchange ideas. Plus, the setting for this particular course was an exciting prospect!

Yesterday we were considering voice, voice of the narrator and voice of the character – which maybe the same thing, of course! I wrote a piece last week, which was about the curator of an imaginary museum, a local history museum in what was an old umbrella factory. An umbrella factory appears in my first Radwinter novel, one of the main character Thomas Radwinter had ancestors who worked in it in the nineteenth century. It was a complete fiction, but somehow, I suppose because we were at a museum that was what sprung into my mind; last week I wrote about a curator at my fictional museum, called Malcolm, and yesterday i imagined someone visiting the museum, maybe going to meet Malcolm, and going into an old store-room. Our particular trigger yesterday for our first piece of writing was a stuffed and mounted buffalo head which was on the wall of the room where we were working.

I was rather overwhelmed by the amount of objects in piles, in heaps, on tables, under tables, dusty and seemingly neglected, and presided over by the sadly benign head of a buffalo, yes an actual buffalo – or is it a bison?
it was huge, absolutely massive, and a sort of grey colour… it was obviously dust, but in my imagination it was not just the musty motes from the museum store-room, but from the prairies of the wild west.
It somehow didn’t look real, rather fluffy, its glass eyes dull… they needed polishing, but wouldn’t it be rather creepy, polishing a bison’s eyes, or is it a buffalo. I remember we did a project in history about the American west and all the things which could be made from the buffalo.

I realised as I was writing it, that the narrative voice, was not some omniscient narrator, but a character I already know well, the aforementioned Thomas Radwinter. Maybe one of his future adventures will take him to the museum in the umbrella factory!

Our next task, having been into the folk art section of the museum, which for me is one of the most exciting and interesting of the rooms, was to write about one of the characters from the portraits around the room. On the museum web-site, ‘folk art’ is explained: ‘Folk Art’ is a misunderstood term in Britain, often used to mean ‘unsophisticated’ or ‘primitive’. In American museums, the term simply refers to the artistic legacy of ordinary folks living in pre-industrial America.  

We were supposed to write about one of the objects as well, but I didn’t get quite around to that. Here is my character – I wrote about her as I remembered her and as I wrote she changed – as you will see:

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The child was a watcher, an observer… When she was with her friends playing, particularly outside, she would be like any of the others, perhaps sometimes louder and, maybe sillier.
“Calm down, Rina!” her parents or teachers would shout.
She wasn’t the most popular, but she wasn’t the least popular, and she had more little friends who were boys than who were girls.
She was a sturdy child, but not fat, tall for her age, and a rather plain face, and if she hadn’t had such an unusual name, people would have struggled to remember her.
loud and silly or quiet and reserved…
She had brown hair, just brown, cut in a plain style. She had dug her heels in at the hairdressers when she’d had her long hair cut, much against her mother’s wishes, and only because of much whining and naughty behaviour.
She didn’t want it ‘styled’ as her sisters had, she wanted to look like a minstrel boy in a story book she had, a long bob and full fringe. Beneath her fringe her pebble coloured eyes, not exactly brown, or grey, or green would watch and observe.
As she got older this characteristic became more pronounced, and as her sisters became prettier, their long blond hair rippling like sun-caught water down their backs, she was able to step back… and retreat. She would always join in, but when people exclaimed over the three older blond children she would stay quiet.
“Oh, you must be Azurine!” people would remember belatedly. “What a pretty name!”
When she was younger she had replied that she hated it, then that she wasn’t Azurine she was Michael, then that she was Rina, then she wouldn’t say anything.
She began, subconsciously at first, to be deliberately reserved, and then began to see how long it would be for new people to notice her, and then – most unusually and only occasionally to talk to her, to have a conversation.

The little girl in the painting is Emma Thompson, and it was painted in about 1850 by the portrait painter Sturtevant J. Hamblen, who was born in 1817, and died in 1884.

I’m not sure that this will ever be more than just an exercise, but I think the name Azurine may figure in a story at some point!

Here is a link to the folk art section of the American museum, and I really recommend that you watch the video on the page:

http://americanmuseum.org/about-the-museum/collections/folk-art/

…and here is a link to all my e-books, including my Radwinter stories:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=lois+elsden

 

So where do I start?

img046I’ve challenged myself to write about these twelve girls, classmates I think, at a state school, a private school, a boarding school? Are there any sisters, twins maybe?

This is a picture I found in a magazine years and years ago; it is a photo of Japanese school girls from some time ago, before the war. Usually when I start writing I make very few plans or notes, although I have usually been working on the story in my head for quite a while, months, sometimes years. But if I write about these  young women, I think I will have to do more planning than I usually do.

I will have to give them names… so should I give them Japanese names? If I do I’ll have a lot of research to do; which names were popular in Japan in the 1920’s, what sort of family names might they have, what might be the significance of particular names…  I wouldn’t want the research to come between my inspiration and my story so maybe I should just give these girls the English translations of their names, such as Night Rain, Hollyhock, Cold, Little Lily… Which of them is called Hollyhock, I wonder? Maybe number one, the girl top left…

Or maybe I should make them English girls, use their expressions and the characters I deduce from their faces and demeanour… forget the Japanese connection except as an inspiration. So if their story is in England…

What would be the plot? It would be no good just having descriptions, or endless conversations between them, there has to be a plot…, a plot with twelve background stories, twelve personal contexts, twelve puzzles to solve. Twelve girls of the same age… how would I enable the reader to differentiate them and remember their details. How would I make them distinctive as people… that’s the trick! To make twelve similar people different and memorable!