A friend once said to me ’Creating art is like dropping your pants in public. If you aren’t brave enough to do that, you should do something else.’
He was talking about making music, though the idea applies to writing too. In writing fiction your real personality ‘leaks through.’ Writers reveal themselves in their work. When I wrote Cars Just Want to be Rust one of my early readers said of the central character, Kitty Lockwood, ‘Well, she’s you, isn’t she?’ I was shocked. Had I simply invented my own avatar? Would all my prejudices and foibles be revealed? It’s that sort of fear which leads to self censorship. We all want to be loved. If not loved, then liked, or at least respected. We want to retain our dignity. We want friends to think we’re decent people. We’re warm, caring people who don’t make loud noises or frighten the horses.
So there is a temptation to stick to safe topics: to tailor the subject to the safe and acceptable. But self censorship is crippling. It hobbles a writer, preventing them from examining difficult subjects or creating characters who are repellent or weak. I was discussing Alan Bennett’s The History Boys with the writer Fiona Veitch Smith. ‘Of course, it couldn’t be produced now,’ she said. The central character of The History Boys is Hector, an eccentric teacher, who delights in knowledge for its own sake. But Hector is discovered sexually fondling a boy and his latent homosexual inclinations emerge. The teacher in the film version was played by Richard Griffiths. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, such a relationship is seen as sinister and predatory. The sympathy the audience feels for Hector would be tainted. There would be a temptation to write less than the truth.
When I worked in prisons I discovered that nobody considers themselves to be ‘evil’. While inmates allow they may have committed foolish, or regrettable crimes, they consider themselves to have been forced into such behaviour. I taught a young man who had run over a policeman who had forced him into it. ‘It was his fault! He was gonna arrest me!’ Real life villains such as Hitler or Radovan Karadzic look upon their crimes in a similar way – sad, but what else could they do? Even people who do evil things do not regard themselves as villains. Which is an important thing to bear in mind when creating your characters. Good people can do bad things: bad people can be sweet, merciful, even kind. Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter are not rotten to the core – if they were that would be somehow less frightening. So don’t self censor – be brave – dare to explore the dark side. It does not mean you are evil. Writers are not the characters they create.
I was pitching radio play with a heroine who was a traveller. The producer said ‘I think we’d rather have such a play written by a member of the Romany community.’ That comment suggests that a writer can only create characters of which he or she has personal experience. So if you’re a woman, you can’t write about men. If you’re old, forget writing about children. Most stories we know would never have been written. J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, would not have created Captain Hook. Barrie, you see, was not a ’member of the pirate community…’
I’m very glad to see that the sixth series of the French crime drama, Engrenages (Spiral in the UK) is in production. It’s so well written and constructed. A set of sub plots is woven into a mystery which is resolved during the length of the series. The look is distinct, the acting superb. We care about these characters – Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), Gilou (Thierry Godard), Tintin (Fred Bianconi), Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos), even the crooked lawyer, Josephine Karlsson ( Audrey Fleurot) engages our sympathy. These are flawed characters, living and working in a grubby, corrupt world where the political and the criminal worlds mesh and entwine. Yet the respect and affection between the members of the team is just as real, just as authentic as the betrayals and double dealing. I love the series and the way it combines the political world with crime drama is an inspiration.
When someone asks me what I do I mumble that I’m a writer. Sometimes the next question is the brain twisting ‘So have you written anything I’ve read?’ But the most common question is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ My answer is ‘Out of my head.’ But finding ideas when they don’t make a spontaneous appearance is something which interests me.
Writing a story in any medium is a journey. I have a few ways to find the tricky first step.
1) People watch. Observe people without judgement. Try to empathise, however unappealing you may find them. Few people believe they are evil, or venal, or corrupt. They find a way to justify their behaviour. Speculate. Try to look into their past and imagine how they got to be the person they are. What was their childhood like? Which events formed their worldview and shaped their character?
2) Setting. I return to some places time and again in my mind’s eye. I often picture a grove of trees in Durham ; a street in Sienna, a rooftop flat in the Marais. I have no idea why these places come to mind – perhaps they resonate with events that took place there. You will have similar places in your own mind’s eye. Write down notes about these evocative settings. Try to capture the way these places affect your senses – sight, sound, scent, touch and, if it’s appropriate, taste.
3) Listen to music. I find instrumental music to be the best – I can’t have anyone cluttering up my mind with their words – it gets in the way! I need access to the voice in my head. So I listen to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain. Another favourite is the guitar playing of Django Reinhardt or Julian Bream – something like Recuerdos de la Alhambra. If it must have words, then something like Bailero from “Chants d’Auvergne” by Joseph Marie Canteloube – nice tune and I haven’t a clue what they’re singing about. For the same reason I listen to FIP Radio – good music, but the DJs talk in French, so it’s not distracting.
4) Keep a notebook close to hand. Carry one and keep one by the bed. If you can’t find one, write your idea on a napkin or fag packet. Otherwise, you’ll forget it….
5) Tell yourself a story while you are falling asleep.
6) Write about your passions. Why do you enjoy collecting socks or extreme ironing? Think of your hero or heroine. Give them a similar passion.
7) Freewrite. Choose a subject and write continuously for a while without lifting your pen from the page. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. Don’t censor yourself – just write. This way you access your subconscious and often surprise yourself, discovering ideas you didn’t know you had.
8) Walk. It’s so important to switch off the everyday concerns and access your mind’s alpha state. There is something about the rhythm of walking which does this. I find it helps if you are blocked.
For example, you may have a great beginning but don’t know how to end the story. Stories are circular. The central character will end up in the same place – geographical, physical, situational – but everything will have changed. They possess new knowledge, or skills, or have been changed in some way. Walking frees the mind and allows you to examine all the possibilities. Write them down.
Before they float away…
Phil tilted his head, seeking the sound of his son’s footsteps in the empty house.
Sue turned to the estate agent, furrowing her brow.
‘He was here a moment ago!’
The agent nodded, peeking at his wristwatch.
Phil hurried from room to room. Each had ghosts – cupboards, tables and chairs draped in sheets.
Beyond the gallery lay the master bedroom. Phil peered through the bay window, his heart ticking.
The lawn was a tangle of weeds bordered by oak and Scot’s Pine.
Something moved, beneath the trees.
Phil murmured his son’s name.
Jamie stood alone.
A breeze sighed through the pine needles, lifting the swing.
Phil rested his hand on his boy’s shoulder.
The knotted ropes, green with age, screeched against tree bark.
‘A swing! Climb aboard, kiddo. I’ll push.’
Jamie glanced at his father. ‘Maybe…’
His gaze fell to the empty seat.
‘When she’s gone,’ he whispered.
I’ve just submitted an iStory called The Swing to Narrative magazine.
The challenge is to write a complete story which can be read on a phone. The limit is 150 words – an interesting challenge. I find that one of the most enjoyable tasks is editing my work – keeping meaning and sense yet conveying that in the most economical way . The Swing is a ghost story – I’ll be uploading it on here and possibly on the Rudham Books site soon. https://rudhambooks.com
The Luxury of Murder is the second book in the Kitty Lockwood story and is out now on Rudham Books, (ISBN 9780993400308).
I’d like to thank Rod and Fiona Veitch Smith for their generous support and hard work in publishing my first book, Cars Just Want to be Rust, on Crafty Publishing. My second book is published by Rudham Books and is available on their site and through Amazon.
I’m currently working on the third book in the series. The working title is Kitty 3, as I can’t decide between A Caked Up Bizzy Wagon, Northumberland Blues or Those Are the Dead People. A tricky decision. All suggestions are welcome…
The wife of a nightclub owner is attacked by her pool. Kitty Lockwood becomes certain the wrong man is in custody. How far is she prepared to risk her own life to find the real culprit?
After a long period of writing and editing, the new Kitty Lockwood book, The Luxury of Murder, is published by Rudham Books. It’s available through Amazon or through the publisher – RUDHAMBOOKS@GMAIL.COM
If you’re ordering online and need the ISBN it’s ISBN 9780993400308
The Luxury of Murder costs £7.99 in the UK plus £3 postage and packing.
At the moment I’m moving between four or five projects every day, which is the way I like to work. I’m writing a sequel to Cars Just Want to be Rust. The current title of that is The Luxury of Murder, though I’m also toying with The Dark Triad. I’m working on two film scripts. The Curse of Anaïs, is a thriller with hints of the supernatural. This is with Box Kite Films. I’ve recently finished a draft of a crime film which is called The Darkest Light.
I find it takes a while to re-enter the world of each story. The only way to do that is to read the last few pages and then dive in. Working in different media – and different stories – requires a mental gear change – but it does give variety. And if I get stuck on one story it’s good to park that in the subconscious and move on.