Scrapbooking for writers

ilonkasscrapbookdesign-783554_1920Leading on from last week’s post about inspiration and ideas, I thought this week I’d mention that I feel it’s useful for a writer to make notes of ideas that could be used for future projects.

Once upon a time I used to buy scrapbooks, and cut and paste – literally not figuratively – scraps into these books to give me resources to use in my writing. I might have stories cut out of the newspaper, programmes from events, pamphlets, photos, anything that looked like it could be useful for generating a story. These were my ‘ideas files’. These days scrapbooks can be virtual rather than actual, Notepad documents or Word documents saved in a folder named ‘Ideas’ on my laptop, but I still do it. On my Kindle Fire, I use Evernote too, which I love, as it can sync with your computer, so you’ve got all the same notes in both places. (I’m sure there is other notemaking software out there 😉 )

I still make notes about all sorts of things: snatches of eavesdropped conversation, the way the sky looked on a particular day, a memory, a description, a character sketch, a question, an unusual word, a news story. These things go in my ideas file until they can be slotted together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some are assembled to make this picture, others combine to create something different. Some may never used, but who knows? So long as I have them, I have the potential building blocks for a story. If you follow my Facebook page, you will know I have recently been obsessing about surnames, especially women’s surnames: Webster (a female weaver), Brewster (a female brewer), Spinster (you guessed it – a female spinner!) even the word ‘wife’, which may be a corruption of wefen – to weave. (And also the word hussy from husif – a housewife…) These have all come from various sources to be filed and documented and mulled over in my ideas ‘scrapbook’. And when I read a book a while ago, the author had made special mention of a fashion shade popular in the 1890s and 1900s, the name of the colour was Philamot – from the French feuille morte – dead leaves – a disappointingly dingy-sounding colour – but the word conjured ideas and even felt like a possible title or name. All noted for future possible interest.

I find it so useful to keep these little notes and reminders. I have got used to the idea that although I think I will remember something, I never do, so I have to make notes; it’s a bit like leaving myself a trail of breadcrumbs. When I am ready to begin writing, I find it helpful to try a few of these ideas and see which ones seem to fit together, then I stick them all into a Word document, print it up in draft quality, and staple the top of the page to the inside of the cover of the new notebook I’m using for the new story. (I have to have a new notebook, or rather a set of small notebooks, for each new novel, and I always begin to write in longhand, at least in the early stages, even if I end up later moving to the laptop and writing directly onto the screen.) So I have my little ideas ready, I can refer to them, adapt them, and if I don’t use them, they are still saved on the computer for the next new story. To avoid getting too set in my view about how a snippet might be used, I give each one a very broad title or category: ‘1930s or 1940s’, ‘country house type story’, so that ideas can be used in different ways and ‘recycled’ as required.

 

Blue Sky Thinking?

file5061340819905

“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.”
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

We often are told in writing to draw on our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our writing, to create texture and believability, creating a world for our reader to step into in their mind. The same is true of the weather. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: capture a background, a stage, a canvas, on which your characters can live out their lives.  Weather often overlaps with sensory description – you make your reader feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, or the raindrops on their face, let them hear the thunder or feel the rising humidity or the biting of a north wind every time the cabin door opens and someone struggles to push it shut again.

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.”
― Dr. SeussThe Cat in the Hat

Where you are writing about a specific time of year, remember that extremes of weather can be used to move a plot forward – an unseasonably warm spring day, a summer downpour leading to flooding.  In Judith Allnatt’s book “A Mile Of River” the events of the story unfold in Britain’s long drought of 1976, to devastating effect.  I can remember snow falling in July once in the 1980s when we lived in Aldershot, and five years of living in Queensland – even with its reputation for being damp – has made me love grey skies and rain. One of the first people we met was a cab driver from Hull who had been in Aussie for 35 years.  He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. so weather can also be part and parcel of who we are and affect our outlook on life.

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.”
― P.D. JamesA Taste for Death

I’ve always wanted to use that phrase so often featured in the Peanuts cartoons: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Originally used by a British writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, it was ridiculed from the off for its melodrama.  So I haven’t used it.  But it’s tempting! I love storms and it always feels as if anything could happen during a storm.  Likewise we think of spring as bright, happy, a time or hope and rebirth…

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
― T.S. EliotThe Waste Land

I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in my WIP, Miss Burkett Changes Her Mind (no, I still haven’t finished it .) I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of your misery and grief, the heavens refuse to open, and the sun shines, the birds sing, almost in mockery of your emotions. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.

But don’t overdo it.  You don’t need to update your readers on every other page unless it’s a book about climate change, or you’re engaged in rewriting Wuthering Heights. (I’m sure they would all have lived happily ever after if they hadn’t lived in such a bleak and lowering spot.)

“But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.”
― Jerome K. JeromeThree Men in a Boat

The Errant Queen Cornered

mf754

Sometimes little snatches of narrative come to me and I have to write them down “just in case”.  Evernote on my Kindle and on my PC is great for this as you can be out and about with your Kindle (or any tablet or phone …) then sync the ideas or notes when you get home.  I have set up a number of ‘notebooks’ – ‘various ideas’ then also WIP-specific notebooks in case of a sudden flash of inspiration – or desperation – when I’m away from home, or just can’t be bothered to go to the PC, so I can make notes and save them all in one folder, so linked ideas are together.  I’m still very new to Evernote, so you no doubt have better ways of working, but at the moment, I’m feeling pretty smug about this!

Below is one of my flashes, it’s a bit florid, I don’t know if it’s going anywhere but I enjoyed the moment of high drama, seeing in my mind a noblewoman on the deck of a ‘Tudorbethan’ wooden ship.

The Errant Queen Cornered

  I would sooner risk ending my days in the cold grey waters of our English channel than turn to safe shore and meet His Majesty’s hot rage and spited vengeance in the Tower.  or so thought I when I fled.

  But now the moment has arrived, and I find I must pause.  My courage hides itself behind these woman’s skirts and I cling the rail with white hands, hesitating.  I do not wish to hasten death.  And yet – what other choice have I?  Tell me, is there some other way I have o’erlook’d?  No, no, so thought I.   His Majesty’s clipper approaches from the South, the Royal Pennant can be seen even from this reach, and they will be upon us all too soon.
  How good of you to come so far at my blighted side, faithful friends.  So I leap.  And yet – yet – truly say me, is’t other course still to be found?  No, no, I reckoned it stood thus.  Well then, adieu or as God allow, fare thee well.  I leap.  Sure the sea appears full deep and chill.  God grant my skirts shall weigh me down and end it quickly. Take my arm then, good knight, help me over, and I pray thee, I may yet see thee anon.  The lack of me shall free thee all, His Majesty shall not vent his wrath upon any of my friends, it will suffice that I am gone.  Farewell.

Fear – the creative tool

palhaço blog

When I talk about writing, and my own version of it, I talk about beginning with ‘what if’ and going on from there.  But sometimes I ask myself other questions.  Questions such as, what would I kill to protect?  What is the one thing we all need? How would I feel if … ?  I have to get inside my main character to be able to write my story.

Another useful question to ask yourself when embarking on a new project – or I should say – when looking for a new project – is ‘what am I afraid of?’

Fear can be a terrible, paralysing emotion.  But conversely it can galvanise you into action like nothing else on earth.  It can be a useful, creative tool.  Sit down in a quiet corner and ask yourself in all honesty, ‘what am I afraid of?’  Getting too ill to care for myself?  Losing a loved one? Losing my mind?  Not being able to pay the bills?  Being paralysed?  Home invasion? I think most of us fear these big things.  But what about small, more intimate fears?  Fear of losing your hair?  Fear of being stuck in a job you hate for twenty years or more?  Fear of not being able to turn the cheek one more time? Other fears?  Spiders?  Worms?

What about childhood fears?  Fear of the dark?  Fear of statues and scarecrows?  Loved one replaced by a very convincing robotic double that only you can detect? Dr Who has so much to answer for!  Murderous clowns – thank you Stephen King!  What about getting lost?   I can remember losing my mother in a supermarket many years ago and I sobbed as the nice store manager asked me what she looked like – and with a child’s real terror I wailed ‘I can’t remember!’  I remember this with absolute clarity 48 years after it happened.  (For Spock’s Beard fans – the chilling, relatable vulnerability of the child who says ‘Mummy comes back/She always comes back to get me.’  Because if Mummy doesn’t, that is something too terrible to contemplate.  For me to write a book around that would have me in therapy within an hour.)

What about fantastical things that frighten us as adults and as children: Ghosts? Goblins? Witches? Aliens? Bats? Spiders? Sharks? Snakes? Crocodiles? Scorpions? Cockroaches? (See my post from a couple of weeks ago about cockroaches!) Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of fear, basically. We are told fear itself is the worst kind of fear.  But there is something else.  If I were to base a short story on an old fear, a primitive fear, a childhood horror, it would be the fear of being alone.

 

Sirens

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We all love Sirens, don’t we?  They usually travel in three, like witches.  Though sometimes they hunt alone, like the Lorelei siren, luring sailors to their death on the rocks.  Their typical characteristics are: physical beauty that is often a mirage or facade and that is used to seduce, song or music to sooth the senses or even to call unnatural slumber to fall upon their prey.  They lie in wait, ready to snare the unwary, the naive, the innocent adventurer who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Like the scene with the Sirens in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, there is a pleasurable anticipation of what might happen.  They have mysterious powers, and they can bend a man to their will, no matter how good and chaste he may be.  Maybe he’ll get ‘loved up and turned into a horny toad’!  Sirens are bringers of doom, of ruin.  They are depicted as mercurial, evasive, changing and insubstantial, there one minute and gone the next.  We don’t see their true self until our ruin is complete. No one can resist the lure of the Siren when she has decided to call them.

But the Siren is not the only one who owns this fatal attraction.

The innocent – pure or naive, chaste of body or merely without guile – this person is as alluring to the Siren as she is to him.  Evil craves purity.  Wickedness pursues goodness to overtake and devour it.  Monsters are always appeased – and manipulated – by their need to consume maidens.  The dark always seeks the light, because in its own way the light has become the Unknowable to those who live in darkness.  The Siren can never know or experience innocence, because that would mean a subjugation of their own essential nature – it would requite cleansing, sacrifice and purity, a way of life that is alien and impossible for the Siren to bear because they are forced by their nature to live outside of society’s acceptance and to live by instinct alone.   Thus the innocent, completely oblivious to their power, draw in Sirens after them as the moon cannot help but follow its preordained journey across the night sky in the wake of the golden sun.

 

 

Harold! Nooo!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If only we could travel back in time!  Where would you go?  Who would you speak to?  Your past self, to tell them to avoid going out with Mr Nasty?  Or some famous public figure?  Would you go back in time to buy up shares in something or other, to make yourself a billionaire in the here and now?  Or would you take back a bunch of antibiotics to get rid of the plague?

I often think I’d like to go back in time to meet various ancestors.   I’d love to go on that journey from Falmouth to Deal that John and Elizabeth Reed undertook when he left the merchant navy and joined the newly formed Coastguard Service.  I’d have liked to help Elizabeth with her four or five small children on the company boat and reassure her that although the new place was going to be different, and the people in Kent wouldn’t speak the same language, that she would be okay, that she would get used to it, and to tell her to be careful of her health.  It must have been like going to the other end of the world for her in the 1830s.

I would have liked to be at Queen Victoria’s wedding, I would have loved to hear Dickens doing a reading from his own works.  I would have liked to pop down to Chawton and chat with Jane Austen about her works (even though she wasn’t in the pink of health by the time she lived there).

Mostly I think, I would have liked to have a quick chat and a cup of coffee with King Harold.  Maybe my black jeans and glam top from Evans would have been enough to convince him I came from the future?  or my self-tanning body lotion?  Big earrings?  I’m assuming my phone won’t work back then.  Maybe a pack of raspberry pop-tarts would convince him?  I would like to pop in and have a coffee with him, catch him during his brief respite in London after his victory at Stamford Bridge (the battle not footie).  I’d give him a bit of a talking to.

“Harry,” I’d say, “you’re just one man, I know not all the rough rude sea can wash off the oil from the God’s anointed, (oops sorry that’s not been written yet – note to self – must go back in time and write Richard 2 before Shakespeare gets his mitts on it).  But you can’t do it all.  Stay here for a couple of days, take in a show, do a spot of sight-seeing.  WAIT until the rest of the lads arrive, don’t go rushing off to sort out Bill from Normandy.”  Because that’s just what he did – a big set to Up North (anywhere beyond Watford), with Harold crushing the insurgents, then a mad dash South, a quick fuel stop in London, then arriving panting and short-staffed in Hastings, ill-prepared and even worse equipped to meet William in the field of battle.  Literally!  (For overseas readers, the Battle of Hastings took place not at Hastings, but a few miles inland where there is a lovely town by the name of Battle.)  “Harry, my boy,” I would have said …

“My Liege, if I may speak boldly.  Tarry a while here in London, Good Sir, rest and gather your strength.  Wait until ALL your men arrive from the North and you will have sufficient numbers to overcome this young upstart from Normandy.  allow your knights and their men time to rest and eat and prepare themselves for the conflict.  Do not dwell on William’s escapades in Sussex, another two days will save the crown and your people.  then it will be time to march on Hastings and with both weapons and strong men, you will not fail to win the day.  Also, I pray thee, don this helmet with yon strengthened visor to protect the Royal eyes from arrows.”

That’s what I would have said.  “Harry, baby, Nooo!  Fools rush in … take a chill pill.”

I bet he would have gone anyway.  You know what lads are like when you try to boss them about.

Your name seems familiar …

file2761273024953

“That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers.  Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character.  And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder.

Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me:  Meredith Hardew from my WIP Miss Burkett Changes Her Mind.  Amy Harper and Kym Morris in The Silent Woman. (still lying fallow!)  These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story.  But it doesn’t always work out like that. But I can spend hours, literally, agonising over the right name for a character.  There are times when I actually cannot begin writing a story because I can’t seem to find the right name.  Sometimes I can’t remember the names I’ve given to my characters, usually when I’m away from home and writing ‘middle’ chapters, and I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character.  It can get confusing.  In these cuircumstances I have to write long explanations to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs.

But I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head either.  Like the time I had a main character called Ben and I needed to give him a surname. Sherman.  Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good.  It’s like those two names were meant to go together, somehow.  What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought.  Too often I hear people moan, no one would be called that, it’s not a name anyone would really be called.  I told my daughter.  She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!” expression.  Apparently there is already someone well-known with that name.  Oh well.  Back to the book of baby names again.

Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society and culture and we don’t always know where they’ve come from.  I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’.  I had also written five chapters of my WIP before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila.  You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot.  And never feature  Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson.  (I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story!  You can’t suspend belief if you’re trying to remember who is who.)

When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master.  He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities.  Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers.  He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today.  He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar.  Thus Philip became Chilip.

Think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, think of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for bizarre names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’  Pushing Ice character Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird.  So don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Maybe Isaac can become Istac; Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon.  In creating fiction, you are creating a whole world, so a few names is not much more of a stretch.  Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.

Don’t look down

file311313612038

The dreaded middle-of-the-book slump.  The urge to give up and get a proper job strikes yet again.  Why am I doing this to myself, I ask.  I sit in front of the keyboard and think, I can’t even remember the names of all these people, what they look like and what they did.  My murderer is too obvious, my victim deserves to be bumped off – whiny, stupid and pushy – the only mystery here is why someone hadn’t bumped her off sooner.

Staying focused is the hard part now.  Some 35,000 words into the book, and I am into self-doubt territory.  The desire to write something new, something easier is strong.  But I have to press on.  This is not the time to listen to voices telling me to stop, telling me what I’m writing is rubbish.  This is not the time to be concerned with quality or to agonise over the aptness of a phrase.

There are ways of coping – mechanisms for dealing with the tough parts of the experience.  I could try Dr Wicked’s Write Or Die, set it on Kamikaze and write, write write, furiously, for the allotted time before the programme deletes my words and they are gone forever.  I may not churn out Proust or Shakespeare, but at least I AM still churning …   anything – even ten words – are better than writing nothing.

I could go for a walk, take some time off, watch TV or read a book, do some chores around the house, I could do ‘research’ – ie sit looking at stuff on the internet.  Just taking a break will renew my energy and strengthen my sense of purpose, so long as I don’t allow myself too much time away.

But then, sooner rather than later, I have to sit down, take up my pen or put my fingers on the keys, and carry on with my story.  I have to believe in my ability to tell my story and believe that it is a story only I can tell.  Mary Wibberley, a great British writer of romance novels, wrote a book many years ago which changed my life.  It was the first how-to book I ever read, and it taught me to believe, hope and above all, to write.  It was called ‘To Writers With Love’, and in it she likened the writing process to that of mountain climbing.  Her advice?  “Don’t look down”.

Don’t look down means not stepping back from the ‘problem’ and seeing too big a picture, filling yourself with fear and a sense of something too large to be scaled.  It means keep battling forward, one step at a time, then you will gradually reach your goal.  Don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed but move forward, overcoming difficulties one at a time.  So I will battle on, through this Slough Of Despond, until I write those wonderful words that bring such joy and a sense of accomplishment. ‘The End’.

Not long now …

cross check
I’ve been spending the last week editing the second draft of my new novel Cross Check. I’d already done most of the donkey work, so this time around editing has been a walk in the park, but all the same I am so glad it’s almost over! All on course for publication the first week in February.
Someone once told me that if you are not sick of the sight of your story, you haven’t done enough work on it. I have to say I’m beginning to see what they meant. I’m not exactly sick of the sight of it, but I am beginning to feel pretty excited about writing something else and the prospect of spending some months later this year writing the third book in the Posh Hits trilogy is something I’m not yet ready to contemplate!

So won’t you please …. be my little baby

holding figure

Just before the start of NaNoWriMo on November 1st, I was pondering various ideas and little bits and pieces, a bit like the pieces of a puzzle or of a collage, which together create a whole picture.  Snippets of songs, pictures, story ideas, dreams, poetry and memories – all these things were telling me or showing me something, an indefinable thing whose presence I could sense but not see.  Well, after last year’s NaNo attempt I was a bit reluctant to take up the challenge for this year but in the end I decided to take a bit of a risk and set aside my WIP for a few weeks to concentrate on the November challenge, and I’ve been quite revoltingly smug that I had a good experience this year, and felt and still feel I have begun to tap into the buzz my brain had created from all those fragments.

And so I have returned to my poor neglected WIP, that should have been released on an unsuspecting public by the end of October but is still not ready, and now I am mentally pencilling in end of January for a possible release date.

Which leads me on to the next question – what next?  Again the brain is working on ideas and motifs and snippets, and I am wondering about the possibilities …

I love music.  I don’t play any instrument.  I’m not now and never have been in a band.  But music has been tremendously important to me in my life, and I like a lot of different kinds of music.

And now this is what I’m mulling over:

Ronettes: Be My Baby  (Be My Baby – would make a great working title and I have searched on amazon for a mystery/thriller book of that name but found nothing as yet.  Beloved Object also a good title but maybe a bit too close to the Jennifer Aniston film Object Of My Affection – based on the bestseller by Stephen Macaulay)

These lyrics seem a bit menacing when you think about them; Psychological dependency – what would she/he do to gain the approval and adoration of the one she/he loves?  How far would they go?  And in the end, what happens when they suddenly are confronted with the fact that the beloved object does not return their feelings?  And they will see all the (perceived) sacrifices they have made, all the efforts they have made to try to please the beloved object and achieve their love – and for what????  How could you do that to me?

A bit like the Police song Every Breath You Take, which was used as the title for the excellent novel by Cath Staincliff, this one also has overtones of obsession that make it uncomfortable as a reality, though people always see it as romantic.

“The night we met I knew I needed you so

And if I had the chance I’d never let you go

So won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me

We’ll make ’em turn their heads every place we go”

I’m not sure this is a relationship that you could easily extricate yourself from.  Thinking of a story set back in the days of slicked back hair and that whole new scene for teenagers – or older – of freedom, obsession, new styles and opinions.  I’m thinking about big hair, cardigans with the top button done up, big flaring skirts and evenings at the dance hall.   But there will only be one way out of this relationship.

“Be my – be my baby – my my only baby …”