Writing Reality: True Grit

31/07/2013 at 23:07 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , )

In general, I am ignored for my moderate appearance. I live in jeans and t-shirts, hiking boots and converse. They say shoes are a good indication of character, and my feet have walked as many miles as my soul. I never know where I’ll be racing off to next, so the footwear might as well be ready.

Don’t get me wrong, I wholly advocate anyone who’ll take the time to make of themselves an individual portrait, an expression of Self.

Recently, an acquaintance at the gym – taken aback (like others) by my eclectic tastes – told me I seem to lack clarity. I hide my true colours. They weren’t being unkind. They were merely confused as to how a young woman can enjoy collecting swords, ballet, weight-training, and anything fighter jet-related, while also being a writer.

Oh, I did laugh.

I prefer to find myself in my own head. What others perceive outwardly is only the trunk and leaves, and if they’ve the guts to dig down far enough then they’ll find the roots. My ardent hatred of pigeonholing would never conceive of adopting any one image that tied me to a responsibility. Especially if it meant standing in front of a mirror for hours on end, twisting my multi-coloured hair into spikes again. Had enough of that in my early 20’s, ta.

So as a form of kick-back when writing, I am constantly on the hunt for innovative ways of layering up characters without resorting to cliches. I want to find the essence of a person, their cause and reaction. Who were their influences, where have they come from?
Cardboard cutouts will only stand upright. They won’t walk around, talk, fuck, babysit, eat pizza. You get the idea.

One of my favourite techniques is to refer back to influential films, with the grittier characters who defied expectations. The ones who stung my mind, made me reassess them with each viewing.

Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran, stated that “Platoon is fundamental, it’s almost biblical…looking back I have to say there were people who were predisposed to kill anything, and other people who are predisposed to restraint, and it’s not an easy equation because there are times when you are under pressure and you kill.”

Never more relevant than in the case of Staff Sgt. Robert “Bob” Barnes (Tom Berenger). He is, to my mind, a welcome example of faceted characterization. One half of the father-figure duo with Sgt. Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe) set to tear the platoon apart as much as hold it together, his reticence is constantly tested by the troops’ inability to conform to the workings of the war machine:

“I am reality”

While Barnes seems to consistently act against decent morals – snarling into the face of a stricken soldier to “take the pain” – he is working in the context of Survival. In this scene, it’s his quick reaction to cut off the plaintive sounds that would draw enemy fire, which saves the rest of the platoon. He just has a funny way of showing he cares.

And he’s not always successful. Barnes has seen the tours, he has experience on his side; it’s not so much a survival kit as a soul-killer. Following a fatal explosion in a VC bunker, after two soldiers lift a trap, it’s his seamed face the camera finds. Real remorse lives there; for their stupidity, for his inability to train them adequately, and be a better father.

When a soldier is found brutally murdered, it’s through the narrative of Chris that Barnes is put into real crosshatched perspective:
“Barnes was the eye of our rage. And through him, our captain Ahab, we would set things right again. That day we loved him.”

Barnes is a harsh lesson in how circumstance may carve a soul. He’s a character I’ve drawn strongly upon when writing about the Hakken family in my novel, End of the Line.

The Hakkens are from the poor West side of town. The father, Garth Hakken, is a chronic jail-hopper done repeatedly for scrap trade, the only profession where credentials – hard to gain in a local education system angled towards the richer East side – aren’t necessary.

His continuous absence / reappearance in the lives of his four boys, creates friction in the family. Eldest son Garth Jr. particularly resents his father, and takes it upon himself to raise the three younger boys in as disciplined a manner as is possible for a hormonal young man, a gang leader himself. In forging a small army of his brothers, he creates a saving-grace control that the rest of the town mistakes for threatening.
As female protagonist Li tries to explain to newcomer Joe:

“It’s the only way he keeps them in line. They won’t listen to anyone else. Not with their dad inside… The Hakkens get a lot of flak in town, but at least people fear them, too. That’s all they’ve got, right? They live on the shittiest estate there is, outside Hell. This time of year, their roof – it’s all corrugated iron – sounds like constant gunfire, what with all the rain.”

Garth Jr. exerts a harsh love. He knows, far better than his young siblings can understand, that lack of education will most likely see them locked into the same criminal cycle as their father. For the time being, he holds this fate at bay, with daily drills and spot checks, to wear out their sullen anger and young firebrand energy. It instills routine into their lives, where all else has failed.

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Luc Besson could have taken the hackneyed route of depicting a chisel-faced assassin, with Leon; a protagonist capable of throwing out nifty one-liners, incapable of breaking a sweat.
Instead, he created a lasting memory of a very human individual.

Leon is a man of practicality, not image. His are comfortable, worn clothes, functional and forgettable. He is accustomed to moving quickly, silently through all arenas; the last thing he needs is a costume malfunction. This comes as a welcome and identifiable reality – that in order to perform well, one must be on familiar ground.

In a profession where death may come as an inevitability to either side, where chaos can linger, Leon remains forever alert. When he retires to his private state, everything has its place and he is well aware of that place. He unwinds to the simple things in life: musicals, milk, the careful tending of his plant-friend; the careful uncreasing of his clothes, is the smoothing out of darkness from his mind. It’s not exactly a glamorous existence, but a life nonetheless.

When this haven of experience is upended by the appearance of Mathilda, Leon is at once adult and child. The wariness on his face as he carefully lowers himself down to rest, after checking every inch of the new flat they’re forced to decamp to, is very human. He is left in a strange and potentially hostile environment, tripping over unfamiliarity. The facade of control has been stripped away, to reveal a fragile individual. We, the audience, know his fear though the hunched shoulders, the constant checking. He has been reduced to the same tense, wary soul he would have been before the training took over, and the last flat became a home.

When put into the context of writing, it can take the displacement of a character from their status quo, to truly draw out strengths and weaknesses. To find the soul of their story. Certainly, my protagonist Joe is a tense individual from the outset, liable to bite anyone’s head off. After being evicted from his family home because of his drunkard father’s state, he is quick to size people up as a potential enemy and traitor. It takes the friendship of Li to reawaken a sense of security and kinship, in a young man who is feeling the instability of his world on a harsh new level.

Don’t feel tempted to play by all genre rules when writing, or to create a series of extremes. Your characters will shine through their own experiences, the cause and reaction of memory and circumstance.

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The Piano

24/07/2013 at 12:46 (Poetry, Writing) (, , , , , )

He played me the rawness of life
A pain he made calm in his hand
With fingers staccato across the keys 
That no other touch could warm.

I was as a goddess of sound
A beckoning ivory lust
The world became mute with my lilting voice
Would fall with my ebony glance.

He trod with his fingers and toes
A snaring sonata of love
And such was the fever of loss, I knew 
The loneliest shores in his sleep.

I stand with the patience of death 
For morning to live in his eyes
And muting my breath, to rise on one side 
To feel his touch burn me again.

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Writing Reality – On Layering Characters

20/07/2013 at 14:35 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , )

More often than not, the people we see by chance every day are the ones we discard with the same ready ease as anyone facing multiple acquaintances. It’s a simple texture in life. You can’t cling to the patchwork world, and it certainly won’t cling to you.

That being said, there are certain people who embed themselves in our minds – even if we never learn what their middle name is, where they sleep at night, what colour makes them rock out. They might be the girl who stamps your season pass at the cinema, all edgy hair and quick film-talk behind the counter, before she has to greet the next customer; perhaps it’s the guy who for years called you “Fred”, in a poignant Holly Golightly kind of way, though you never did grasp whether it was through projected memories or Alzheimer’s.

These people stay with us, because – if only for snapshots of time – they meant something. They were more than just the blank moon of a passer-by on the street. They stood out in your sky. But if you were to ask yourself, years later, who these people really were? Chances are, you didn’t know then, and you certainly won’t know now.

One way of embedding them in your memory and timeframe, is to give them character roles.

When I sift back through all the nonsensical, random, terrifying (insert adjective of choice) encounters I’ve had in 28 years, I know I’ve got a cache of characters waiting to happen. They’re standing in the wings for their curtain call. I can’t reference them by real names of course, and moreover I never learned half of them anyway. But the faces and personalities imprinted themselves on me so boldly, it’d be a shame to let them go to waste. There was the guy who used to pad the corridors of the inpatient unit I spent 7.5 months on; he’d walk out his night shift to the sound of his fingers gently tapping the walls. I asked him why he did this, and his reply – “so I can check in with your heartbeats, make sure you’re still alive”, overlooked by a knowing wink – endeared him to me as a fellow eccentric. Not just another wire-faced staff nurse, then.

A man with a face like couched leather, large hands that smelled of soap and sugar from all the snacks he helped prepare for us needy anorexics. His was a ready laugh, an even readier temper; after hearing two girls crying in their rooms after time spent at home over Christmas (bewailing the fact they’d probably put on more weight than was expected, as though we could ever hope to keep to a steady regime), he wrote these lines on the main white board for us all to read:

“Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly,
I have a little something here.”

It was only years later, after I was on the road to recovery and bothered to look that poem up, that I got the black joke. I knew his message to us, and took it to heart.

He stays firmly locked in my head as a man of unorthodox proportions and subtle nuance; a man who defied staff credibility by spending far longer with each patient than he was paid to. He’d often sit with me on those nights when I couldn’t sleep, when burning energy fired my feet and mind. He’d talk to me over twin cups of hot chocolate because, as he put it, if I going to be up out of bed and wandering around, he was going to damn well see to it that I put something back inside. The recompense for this not-small fear provoker was, of course, absolutely unstinted staff time – a luxury, in that conveyor belt healthy system. We spoke of many things, cabbages and kings, and I never even learned if he was married, had children, went abroad. But I did learn of the surprising depths of his empathy.

One day, this man will be given the only reward I can possibly deal out to his memory, in one of my fictional works. I want to show the world what complex decency can do for a man. There really are some who give, without asking for anything back – and they still don’t take any bullshit, thank you very much.

Layered characters are the most appealing to read. The ones who don’t put all their cards on the table at once, or feel the need to strip off in each chapter, just to prove they’re the Real Deal. Gradual brush strokes on the canvas make the picture.

Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy certainly didn’t impress himself on Elizabeth Bennett in their first (second, third etc) meetings; but then, what right had she to know from the off about his dealings with Wickham, and the resultant pain suffered in protecting the virtue of the young Miss Darcy? Such grievances lay heavy on his soul, and – though well aware of his own station in life – he was essentially a good man, born of an honourable upbringing. To have his trust diminished in such a deeply personal way, surely saw to it that he wouldn’t be so eager to lay down his every intention to the world at large; unlike the guileless Mr Bingley, easily blindsided by the maneuverings of his sisters and Darcy. Where Elizabeth was concerned, this is especially pertinent, given that he didn’t trust the feelings himself.

I find the world – fictional and otherwise – a far more interesting place when populated by these multilayered people. It can mean chances of misinterpretation of course, of mistrust and alienation. Alternatively, it can catalyze some hugely entertaining games of chance, wherein two personalities – seemingly set to clash from the outset – actually have far more universal truths in their makeup than was realized.

Over the course of the narrative, allow peripheral character actions/reactions to surprise your protagonists, make them rethink their take on the world. If they’re feeling slightly unpinned by reality, the audience will reel with them. They can ride shot-gun with a journey of self-discovery, for it’s often the case that the people we glance off of in life, are the ones who awaken true awareness of what is vs. what must be, strengths and weakness.

It’s the layered people who surprise us, keep us interested, wanting to find out more – even if, in the end, we always feel like we’re trying to grasp smoke. But the smell was gorgeous, all the same.

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Writing Reality – Fleshing out Characters

07/07/2013 at 20:33 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When writing the people who will populate my current novel, End of the Line, I work with various techniques to give them physical, emotional and symbolic qualities that help the reader achieve a vicarious experience. It’s not enough for the teen protagonist, Joe Blackthorne, to lever himself up off the page. I want him to stand (then slouch, being a tall lad and very conscious of it); to breathe, to look around … perhaps to nervously ruffle his hair. He needs to become flesh and bone, thought and idea, dream and memory. The essentials that will progress him beyond a written character, to a human being.

After all, the true achievement in writing comes from being able to unsettle that audience status quo, that what they have picked up is just a book. They need to care, to continue.

These are some of the tricks of my trade.

Get spatial

I don’t know about you, but I tend to struggle with linearity when it comes to plotting narrative flow. Bullet points and timelines always seem to end up sagging under their own weight. Relevant information drops off into a forgotten mess, leaving the less important stuff behind – my mind is cluttered with odd-sock ideas. These are great in and of themselves, but require space of their own, just as key narrative events need theirs.
So I take the lot off the line, and hang them up in the clouds.

With End of the Line, I’ve filled two A3 cartridge paper pads, and have plenty more to spare. Pencils, eraser, sharpener and good old exam highlighter pens (remember how much fun you had, colour-coding notes? Get back into that mindset) are the necessary tools to fill in the pages that will become an atlas of my novel’s world.

Each page becomes a cell; the name of each character, the nucleus, and it’s from here that ideas begin to grow. More often than not, details of the story will change with each monkey-thought session, jumping from page to page, often causing overlap. That’s fine – they’re just going through narrative-osmosis. This is where the highlighters come in handy, to mark out interactions between characters and their relevant scenes. I also date each fresh notation, as it’s a work in progress – with each page stuck up on the wall behind my bureau, I have constant visual reminders of character traits, as well as an endless source of inspiration, with progression tracked.

If there’s no way of pinning name-clouds on your own walls, keep their pad beside your main writing station. Use it as a memo pad; populate it with stickers, photos, newspaper clippings nail-torn out. My personal favourites are hair salon snippets, with the most creative makeup/styles going straight into the “teen gang” inspiration bank.

Do make sure the original owner of whatever you’re tearing into, is actually done with the piece first.

The information that appears in these name-clouds may not be all-inclusive to the novel, but they are noteworthy facts nonetheless. Whatever scene I am writing a character into, I need to know where he/she is coming from – their reactions, who they may or may not turn to for help or comfort; what they’re likely to say. To write such things as truth from respective POV’s, and not my interpretation of events, I need to know a character’s context.

For example, Joe has come from a decent middle-class background. His father worked in the City; his mother quit her job to dote upon her only child. The latter is emphasized by the lack of the former’s presence in Joe’s early life. Theirs was a happy household, well-tended, if a bit strained around the eyes. Joe’s father, Mickey, would often run late from work at the office – he was, as Joe describes to his new friend Li, a “shadow on the wall.”

When Joe’s mother died in the simplest, stupidest kind of accident, the already solemn child grew inward rather than out. Framed in the current series of events, he is a 17-year old with bark-hardened hands, and a head full of information lacking emotional context. He reads avidly in a bid to keep ahead of peers; particularly when his father’s drinking spirals them into a council-funded black funk of a house in Reighton. This is Mickey’s old home town, where the economy is sour as off milk. Joe is determined to avoid becoming “just another Dole scummer.”

This proves harder than he’d feared. He finds himself drawn into feral teen gang wars, played out on the town’s disused rail line; when he makes an unlikely friendship pact with Li, a girl leading a double life in the footsteps of her older sister, he feels himself diminished by events. He is fighting for his own identity.

None of this is aided by the childhood reputation his father left town to escape. Joe is now bearing the brunt of old blows. To cap it all, his insomniac nights are plagued by nightmarish visions of brambles, a rising blue moon, and blood.

Trying to keep hold of all the above was giving me one heck of a headache. So scrawling the name JOE BLACKTHORNE into the middle of an A3 page, was a vast source of relief – the thoughts flew easily into their own space, not tied by linearity, though I do keep close contact between facts with the necessary colour-coding.


I have a habit of twiddling hair at the back of my head, between my fingers. It’s a comfort thing, dating from childhood. Others have noted that twiddle-speed tends to accelerate/decelerate depending on my mood, and they’ve learned to use it as a personality marker for when I’m best approachable, or hostile as a morning cactus.

I’ve injected habitual/subconscious tics like this into the novel, to work blood through my characters. Some people crack jokes when nervous, others chew on their nails. I do emphasize the need to use tics sparingly though, as a pinch of seasoning, or a character will start to resemble the punchline of a bad joke.

Think about where these tics might come from, who influenced them. Look to your own, to family and friends – watch people out on the street (bus stops and train stations are great places for this, with tics dropped like coins in holey pockets.)

Joe’s a tall lad, gawky with it and – particularly around Reighton – made to feel very aware of how much he resembles his father. He walks with a slight stoop, as a man plodding an old furrowed ditch might. Interestingly, this occurs more frequently towards the start of the novel, and when he meets Li. She is small, fine-boned; he feels he might accidentally crush her. On Joe’s name-cloud, I highlighted this point as narrative non-essential, but of relationship-building note.

Garth Hakken Sr., a male resident of Reighton who has spent much of his life in jail, has the small, twitchy movements of a bird accustomed to confinement. Joe Blackthorne tugs at the thick forelock of his hair, as a subconscious need to distract himself with physical pain from moments of emotional distress. On a basic level, it also relates back to his father being on the Dole, and their lack of spare cash for a cut.

Colour Symbolism

F. Scott Fitzgerald has ever been a source of inspiration to me. In The Great Gatsby, his use of the synaesthetic metaphor transcends literary device, to become a sort of symbolic colour-coding of its own. There’s the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock; the continuous presence of yellow, as a sham veneer of gold. These inspired me to better illuminate (or indeed, disguise) my own characters, their intentions and relevancy to the plot.

The term toxic beauty occurs frequently in relation to Li’s older sister, Siobhan. Still missing after 15 years, and with a background chequered in renown as much as disgrace, she’s a girl wonderful to know and daunting to be in the presence of. A girl who completed each school year with top marks, while consistently defying her father’s moderate expectations by holding anti-demolition demonstrations around town, as part of a student body. Not to mention her frequent night-wanderings down the disused line. Her disappearance left deep seeds of doubt and pain in the town.

Her presence is still felt, in the petrol rainbows running down gutters after heavy rainfall; in a secret photograph Li finds, where Siobhan’s customary plain-pretty appearance is transmuted by her wearing “peacock” eye makeup (bright turquoise, broad enough almost to become a mask; brass flares along the lids.) There is the sense of another world, another time; of secrets waiting to be unlocked. All far more interesting, when hidden in plain sight among colours.

Another bearer of secrets, is the character of Daena. She is a wanderer through my fictional world (a Stephen King-inspired universe, our world yet not, broad and many-tiered), and as such has an undefinable quality. She is pleasant and intelligent, while significantly vague. There is the sense of trying to catch smoke when speaking to her.

To accentuate this, as well as her nomadic life, I gave her the colour blue as a symbolic marker. It lives in the rose tattoo on her shoulder (the blue rose being a sign of mystery, the unobtainable, since none may be naturally bred); in her long blue-black hair, and the alto voice that Joe (who has synaesthesia) describes as “ink floating through water.”

Redgrave is a teacher at the local college; he has a Blackthorne bone to pick, and isn’t fussy whether it comes from father or son. He is a man who carries others’ secrets as much as his own, and is difficult to gauge in terms of allegiance. While acting in an almost-unprofessional manner towards Joe – using his power to undermine the boy at every turn – he is also seen to demonstrate a curiously empathetic warmth towards the lonely Li, as he once did her sister.
To enhance this unsteady image, I refer to his having purple-black eyes, to their strange iridescence, as of a bubble’s slippery take on the world.

Sensory Spectacle: Write what you Know, Learn what you Don’t

I really can’t reiterate enough the worth of personal experience when it comes to writing. Sure, you can research a subject in its entirety, bone up on notes – but without actual sensory markers to give them context, these facts may fall a bit flat. Field research can be fun (or in my case, literal.)

It’s worth considering the simple beauty of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in this context. His minimalist prose and knack for striking to the core of a subject, helped him weave characters as exotic as they were universal. In the spring of 1958, Capote was on the New York scene. Among social gatherings, he would find the inspiration for his novella with the local tittle-tattle and socialite scandals; it’s acknowledged that his composite template for Holly Golightly was in fact drawn from many of the Manhattan socialites he had known:

“… the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks.” (2.12), Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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In writing characters, I try to find them in their natural environments. In this way, I learn their habits, so as to be better equipped for descriptions of response, when I stick my hand into the mix and shake things up. In the case of the novel, I’ve wandered a local disused rail line so as to truly know the slippery judder of my boots on mossy sleepers; testing their give, when not only walked but run across, as my protagonists are forced to do when chased by a gang. I want to embed the images with whatever sensory perception I can. When Joe runs hell-for-leather down the overgrown line, I want the audience to know that tingling bitch-slap of a nettle on the skin, or the weird korma smell which ferns give off when hot under a midday sun.

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Consider symbolism again, when writing the relationship between circumstance and character. Mariah Hakken, wife of the afore-mentioned jailbird, lives on a decaying council estate with four tearaway kids; she has been riddled up with mental illness for much of her life, and now exists in a near-hermit state in their family home. The tang of the corrugated iron roof is her bitterness; the sickly sweet scent of the buddleia overflowing in great purple swathes, is her life degrading by deadly degrees.

Take yourself out of your own environment, if it won’t fit that of the character you’re trying to depict. Ask friends/family for passes into places you’d normally have no right of way to – though if you’re writing a court room drama / cop thriller, do take care to keep the photography and notations to a minimum when in public. You don’t want to be suspected of anything nasty, and definitely don’t want your precious notes confiscated, when all you were trying to do was capture the sticky sparseness of a coffee-ringed interview room.

Your audience may well have already read other works of fiction in your genre – convince them that yours is different. It’s like a lived-in pair of shoes, easy to slip on and walk around in. When describing a situation, I like to call upon all five senses wherever possible, putting their slant on things – but it’s important to keep within the personal experience of whichever character being written. It’s no good having an alien character wax lyrical about how the twin sunset they’re watching is akin to the bombs of the London Blitz, if they were never there.

Keep within context, but don’t be afraid to go out on a limb when it comes to elaborating on sensory experience.

Walk to your own beat

As mentioned in this blog entry, I work to a specific soundtrack for each fictional piece, with one or more artists assigned to a theme and/or mood. Just playing them before I begin writing, can frame me neatly in the right mindset. A track may flow on my iPod shuffle, and the melody/lyrics will create a sense of its belonging in the blood and narrative arc of a character.

Incidentally, this ties to field research. I’ve scared myself nearly witless with twilight wanderings of local woodland, listening to Soley’s Kill the Clown; while jotting down notes of what I feel, I’m very conscious of the hairs on my neck going up, and write that in too – plus anything that immediately springs to mind, by way of comparison.

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Personal Reference – Opinion and Dialogue

You don’t need to go smashing through every fourth wall here. Anything ladled on may act as an anchor rather than a buoyant to your work. Narrative structure can become warped by reality, character voices may be lost in your own shout.

That being said, don’t be afraid to raid your own past and that of others. I’m currently rereading all of my old journals, dating back to teen school days, in a bid to recapture the often irrational and overly dramatic mindset of that time. Hormones don’t play easy with teens, and believe me this would be serious research, if I could only stop cracking up.

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My first journal began life in 1998, when I was on the cusp of adolescence. The full-on existence of school life sings off each scribbled, exclamation-marked page. Every sentence is a staccato, or a meandering stream of thought. None of these silly adult inhibitions, like sentence structure. I’ve found that child-woman again – all the longing, the lust, the fear of change and changing emotions (not to mention what growth spurts were doing to my body.) The pale fear of being left behind; the dark, twisting terror of becoming lost in the face of a teeming adult world.

Call up old school friends, get them down the pub – rehash shared experiences, while keeping careful note of their own inflection on stories. This is particularly handy if writing a retrospective narrative; more often than not, rose-tinted glasses are apt to be slipped on. See how what is said, compares with what’s based in your own memories. If you’re feeling brave, ask for their memoirs. Go to the library, pick up the autobiography of someone you’re interested in, or is in some way relevant to your piece. Draw inspiration from their experiences.

When working across genres, you will find that – regardless of what a character wields, preaches, loathes, stands up for – there are hearts beating beneath; there are inspirations to be drawn on, memories to be consumed by. Allow each soul their own opinions and ideals, based on the hand they’ve been dealt in life.

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