Writing Reality: Location and Time

04/11/2013 at 05:45 (Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Listening to Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, I’m always struck by a particular stanza:

Have you seen the old man
Outside the Seaman’s Mission
Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

It reminds me of what first drew me to the city, embedded it in my heart – apart from the obvious beauty of a silken blue scarf on the horizon, one that all too soon knots itself about the throat in a toxic beauty of pollution. I used to travel into London with my mother to meet my father after work, so my memories are mostly of windows set into antiquated walls that blurred past the train, their golden glow seeming like diamond eyes to my excited ones, though the lives held behind would be working late into an evening full of blue-black shadows.

As I’ve got older, the shine of the city hasn’t diminished, only shifted perspective. I often take walking trips across its myriad streets, one borough to another, all alive with individuality and the traits of whoever happens to live there. Though it’s come to my attention more recently (as a writer), that an environment can inform the personality habits/quirks of a resident, as much as the latter influences the state of their home/workplace.

So while wandering, I take in the welcome glow of polished windows and pub signs, the huddled figures in doorways they can never hope to enter but which offer temporary shelter from the wind. There are those who’ll return to the same park bench each day on their lunch break, out of comfortable habit and to feel a niche of Home; or perhaps to escape the mundane nature of this. Depending on what they have to hand, what their circumstances are, they’ll feed or fend off the ever-present pigeon clouds that alight and clatter away by turns, in that bird’s daze of checkered tree-light and traffic noise.

All these impressions, so many more, tangle me up whenever I visit. I find my eyes lingering on the hidden places of the world, the random moments and meetings, rather than rising as they once did to the glaring lights and tourist eyecandy; the teeth of stone, steel and glass. Hooked alley corners, small pockets of greenery, the shadows that smell of a thousand borrowed cuisines; though these often ring with a binman’s calls, and provide more shelter for that hunched shape of one still evading what had them leave their old life behind
(if they had one at all.)

All under an indifferent sky. Freedom is a hard-won prize.

I use the city as an example for its diversity, but you’ll have your own influences, your own icons and symbolism. When writing a location, framing a fictional narrative about a setting in which your characters exist, how often do you stop to wonder about its influence upon their lives – direct and indirect – how it informs their movements, lifestyle choices, emotional responses?

There are things I’ve had to consider in more depth, when writing my novel. As it’s set mainly in one town (fictional, “Reighton”) and is caught between timeframes of past and present (filtered through two first-person narratives, with additional input from secondary sources) it’s become necessary for me to know that environment inside out. I use that analogy again, of taking a clock to pieces to know its mechanism – should the need arise, I have the same resources to hand for taking Reighton apart, assessing how a relevant plot point can be made where it links to a contextual detail.

Just as characterization hinges upon traits and layered memories, a location may develop a personality of its own. Opinions differ greatly about Reighton, depending on a character’s stance in life and more importantly, what impact the town has had upon them. There are families with generational roots deep in its history, who feel a frustrated affection for its once-great past and sadness for its seemingly stark future. Their ancestors were the pivotal force behind Reighton’s conception, first as a farming community along the river Rei, then – with the arrival of a powerful outside influence – as a multifaceted, prosperous clayworks. The latter effectively put Reighton on the map; it became part of a successful commuter belt.

When the clay business collapsed, those families whose lives had twined about it were left to the whim of the council and any investors who happened to pass through, seeing a trick of hasty housing for yet more commuters. The factories and warehouses now lie barren, the old rail line is a playground for the children, who most likely will never know full-time employment. The once-bustling town is, in its present setting, a shadow of itself; this breeds apathy in some, a fierce desire to escape in others … and in a few of the kid-gangs, a somewhat delusional belief that because the outside world has no need for them, they can in turn inwards and become small Gods.

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To achieve all of these plot points – to give them logos as well as pathos – I look for what has influenced my own life. A year spent on the Dole in a town of dying economy, well, that certainly features heavily; as do those childhood days of playing down the abandoned rail line in my old home town.

I wanted to find how these environmental issues might dictate certain character behaviours. In Reighton, lack of work has seen a rise in petty theft and muggings, but also an increase in the tight community ethic. It’s very much an Us vs. Them scenario, with the weary locals – after several decades of declining means and a ream of broken promises from their council – near to breaking point. Morale is low, community-spirit is high, and a thin copper wire of tension runs around the whole town, from the more affluent East side (where the commuter-belt / wealthier locals are, in newer estates or the antiquated mansions of their ancestors), to the impoverished West side of the river, in which many a generation of ex-clayworkers has lived and died.

I pulled influences from my old town, inverting the history of a local parish where I once lived, to add credible details to the history of Reighton. Ridgewood, in the East Sussex town of Uckfield, served as the location for a clayworking pottery through the 19th/20th centuries. As a child, I had no concept of this remarkably layered history; what my friends and I saw were the remnants, two great pits left in the ground for us to play hide-and-seek in, Murder in the Dark, and to sled across when the snow fell on the slopes. My memory of that time is rich with the bittersweet smell of hawthorns, and the wide bowl of open sky; standing on the rim of the larger pit and often finding old discarded hand tools; the proud possessions of whoever once toiled over the clay.

It was a fine playground for any child, and has since been converted into a Millennium Green nature reserve, to preserve it for future generations. Its past is now being brought to light, as when I grew old enough to find an interest in the finer details of my locality, there was little to come by. Said details have made up much of the framework for both my novel’s narrative, and the foundations on which they stand. My local library’s archives were also a priceless resource – use your own wherever possible, particularly to learn the structuring of a town across generations, to gain an insight into environmental and economical patterns (e.g. many towns begin life alongside a river, arable land and/or a major trade-link road.)

Often, character lifestyle choices will be based upon what they’ve learned through a progression of experiences – parental influence, education, home and work environments. A series of locations may well mirror this.

“Mickey was about twenty-six, short, with a small moustache on a pasty face. The romance and glory of his life were behind him. The romance was still the warm East, where he had been a clerk in a rubber firm, and the glory had been the divine facility of living, women and drinking. Now he was unemployed, and wore an overcoat along the hard, frozen plains of Earl’s Court, where he lived on and with his mother… he was famous for his drunkenness locally, being particularly welcome in drinking circles… because by his excesses, he put his companions in countenance, making their own excesses seem small in comparison.” – Pg 42, Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton.

Symbolism can be brought into the act too, once a fictional setting becomes as well-known to you as the reality you walk through; these shadowy messages start to appear in the corners of the bigger picture. Huddled shapes in the doorways of grand houses; a newspaper of today, blowing up the road being built for tomorrow; and indeed, the succession of wealth unto celebrity, an endless parade of tomorrows for as long as both hold out:

“No one wore costumes on the night of her engagement party at the Racquet & Tennis Club, but in the ballroom of that club, that limestone manse sitting like a sphinx on Park Avenue … you didn’t need costumes to have a masque ball. Everyone knew their role and played it… Their names were written in gold leaf on mahogany plaques across the walls of the changing rooms, Whitneys, Phippses, Rockefellers, and they bathed naked together in the Turkish bath and played obscure racquet sports passed down from Bourbon kings and sealed billion-dollar deals with clinks of glasses over lunch. And at these parties, if you were not a member, you were a guest and set your face stern to conceal your awe. You were solemn to foil discovery of the wonder that mugged you of your confidence… then into the grand ballroom that invited you to look down on who you had been just moments before, on the street below. You hated loving being there, and you struggled to conceal yourself, and all of a sudden, you were in costume.” – Pgs 1-2, Mergers and Acquisitions, Dana Vachon.

One of my characters, Garth Hakken Sr., is forever in and out of prison. He is part of the forgotten Reighton generations on the West side, but chose not to go quietly into poverty – his is a life of scrap-metal and shady deals, to keep his family fed. His acclimatization to both this darker side of life, and the legal consequences set against him, inform his thoughts and behaviour. He walks with his head tucked in, as a boxer will to avoid a punch; his tall frame is somewhat curved over, movements neat and confined, to avoid drawing unnecessary attention and out of sheer practicality – he’s spent a good deal of time in a cramped cell.

Do your characters aspire to fit in on a social level, or – due to the level of danger in their surroundings – have they learned to act upon instinct and disappear, before fear takes over? To what extent do socio-economical matters impact upon their lives? How have circumstances changed them from the blush of youth, into the pale years of age; do they wear these marks of another time for all to see, a proud symbol diminished by the world’s neglect?

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Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

These are considerations to make – running parallel with research for a setting/environment – for potential advancement of plot, based upon what drives a character to react as they do.

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Writing Reality: Sensory Seasoning

05/08/2013 at 19:53 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


There’s nothing I enjoy more when settling down to read, than coming across the sort of sensory delights that work to enhance a literary style; a welcome handshake between author and audience. An image will be passed via metaphor and juxtaposition, and it’s left up to the reader to follow the trend of themes, for heightened enjoyment. There’s no better feeling than making that connection; the “aha!” moment, and (for me anyway) smile of real pleasure, at having my mind expanded that little bit more.

More often than not, it’s a case of drawing the audience into a sensory mindscape; giving them word-images to pick over and enjoy en route. As someone who indulges far more in the abstract, in setting and concepts, such literary techniques as metaphor and juxtaposition help me to avoid boring myself to death when writing. I love splicing words and their relevant connotations together, to see what works.

Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors to employ these sensory-themes. Probable Future has an unnerving plot, to be sure, but for me the real focus lies in the sheer beauty of tasting her words, the images they evoke:

“Today there were huge cumulus clouds in the hazy sky, and Stella felt the sultry dampness in the air. Everything at Cake House was faintly wet, the blankets and the carpeting. All night long, Stella had heard the peepers on the shore and the whisper of reeds.” – page 87, Probable Future

The plot of Probable Future revolves around such themes as hasty actions, indecision, natural magic and real lives. Rather than tell the audience in bland sentences, Hoffman conveys the themes with references to spring fever, heat haze, the colours green and gold, as they are primaries of the month of March, in which the story is framed. The universality of March-madness is one a reader can grasp when taking on board the often erratic actions of the characters. Wild weather and water, act as conduits for the suspension of disbelief required in small acts of word-magic.

“Before long, there would be sheets of green rain of various different consistencies: fish rain, rose rain, daffodil rain, glorious rain, red clover rain, boot polish rain, swamp rain, the fearsome stone rain, all of it washing through the woods, feeding local streams and ponds.” – page 120

This is no place for referencing dusky desert heat, nor yet the hard blandness of a concrete setting. The settings of the novel, its references, fairly drip with mould and sultry-dark water; they filter quietly through descriptions of the furniture in Cake House, bubble away like an underwater stream beneath the lives of the characters.

With your own written work, try to keep to a steady flow of themes and relevant imagery. Don’t suddenly change tack because something sounds good in your head; if it doesn’t fit the context, it doesn’t belong. For example, looking at this picture, I’d describe it as a gunmetal sky in a modern context:

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But this wouldn’t be so fitting of a genre where firearms were nonexistent. It’d only throw the reader out of whack, a real fourth-wall breaker. Instead, when trying to depict something like this sky full of cumulus, in words:

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I’d use archaic language and imagery; “burnished shields”, springs to mind.

“Gunmetal sky” came about through an inherent wariness of nimbus clouds; as a permanent pedestrian, I know what they can unleash. There’s the element of danger in potential lightning strikes, tumultuous rain. There’re the darkly gleaming colours, reminiscent of a gun barrel. And of course, with reference to a firearm, the connotations of injury and death.

So, all of the above can be nicely sandwiched together in a couple of loaded words. This frees up my writing space, and a reader’s time; and hopefully, gives them a little *nudge-wink* into the bargain.

That being said, I know I’m a terrible metaphor fiend. With every first edit, I find myself wincing at the stumbling blocks of my own imagery, laid on far too thickly to establish a smooth read.
Through studying various authors, I’m learning to pare down my style towards something mimicking their own exotic simplicity.

In Capote’s own words, “…the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” He may not be an author to everyone’s taste or style, but I do believe his use of juxtaposition is second to none:

“It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs, upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – page one, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A universal truth, for anyone who’s used public transport before. No need for great detail in establishing the discomfort of the furniture. The one simple image-reference, is enough.

“Leaves floated on the lake; on the shore, a parkman was fanning a bonfire of them, and the smoke, rising like Indian signals, was the only smudge on the quivering air.” – page 52, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

To quiver is, of course, a verb, and a sensual one at that. In this context, it delivers a lustrous personification of the air surrounding the scene. There’s an aura of romance, of the unknown; the future flickering into being, taking the characters through a curious enhancement of emotion, as they spend the afternoon together. They may well be rippling the folds of the world in their enjoyment of each other’s company.

It’s a technique I like to borrow when scene-setting. There’s no need to waffle on in reams of description, where a handful of simple, carefully chosen words might suffice. Where “quivering” and “bonfire” are raised concurrently, the nature of Holly Golightly is made manifest in wavering heat, the inability to grasp at anything solid. The audience feels the beauty, the fragility of the scene, through the narrator’s sensory perceptions.

And I really can’t advocate using these five senses enough, to frame your own writing. Draw upon the memories of your audience. Allow them to touch, taste, see, hear, smell all that your characters do; overlap senses, to create memorable images that will enhance their reading:

“Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea… Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers.” – Capote, House of Flowers, page 9.

I don’t know about you, but that’s more than enough smooth imagery to paint the picture for me. The use of colour references is simple, yet the names of the flowers are exotic, to create a subtle blend; alliteration / onomatopoeia found in “far, faint winkings of the sea … the walls always rustled,” evokes a gentle rhythm, as of the distant tide and the breeze.

While reading Tim Gautreaux’s excellent short story anthology, Welding with Children, a particular paragraph leaped out at me as both vitally clever in asserting its imagery through sentence structure, and a real pain on the eyes to read:

“…a loose tarpaulin flying over the forty-foot trailer, wild as a witch’s cape… After one click of his blinker he would roll out like a fighter plane, road reflectors exploding under his tires like machine-gun bursts…the car would surge into the curves like electricity, Wesley pushing over the blacktop as if he were teaching the road a lesson.”

Wild as a … like a fighter plane … like machine gun … like electricity…

Real stumbling-block words. Far too much imagery, condensed into a paragraph. Oh don’t get me wrong, in terms of context – the driver zigzagging through a dusty panhandle landscape – it’s an effective way of depicting his erratic slalom-run of acceleration and sharp braking.
All the same, it requires a readjustment of gears in the reader’s mind, just to keep up. The imagery pounds on the mind, each one different from the last, charged with its own electricity. I was left a little overwhelmed; as is often the case when reading back over my own freshly written work.

Learn to pare down your style, to use only the choicest and most contextual references and words. Don’t bombard your audience with imagery; lull them along, interspersing it with good stock words and simple phraseology. They won’t think you’re daft for it, that you’re not trying hard enough. Overblown words, sentences and imagery, will only make them squirm, as though you’d upended a salt shaker on their bowl.

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