I spent a good deal of time yesterday going through some mixed paperwork which was found in the loft (attic) of my late mother’s house – she died some months ago. The house is up for sale and her executor, my cousin, found this and handed it to me. There is nothing legally important, but there are several memories and a few photographs. Quite a lot was my late father’s stuff, including several of his paintings, though not the best, and some old photographs. There is a picture of my father which must have been taken about 1935, with him dressed in a sort of gaucho outfit and holding an accordion. It was about this time when he toured with a variety show in a junior band. The photograph must have been taken in Hereford, near where I now live. Another photo, taken a year or two after, shows him pretending to ride a large motorcycle with his mother riding pillion. This was taken in Blackpool, by the photographer’s mark.
Other papers show something of his employment history, which was a bit chequered after the war, and his health problems. A further set shines a new light on the relationship between my parents. I have both love letters and a threat of divorce.
I have ended up somewhat surprised and disturbed by these challenges to my memories and the additional information I was never previously a party to.
If I was ever to attempt to write a biography of my parents, or include such details in anything from an entry in a family history to an autobiography, much of this would have to be taken into consideration. One thing I am certain of is that I could not rely on my memory alone. Much of what I saw through childish eyes was only a partial truth.
I will admit it. There are some books which I cannot take seriously, and really ought to. When I was doing university entrance exams about forty years ago I had to study D H Lawrence’s book, ‘Sons and Lovers’ as one of the set texts. The trouble was I had just read Stella Gibbons’ book ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ before starting the Lawrence book. Cold Comfort Farm is still one of my favourite books. The passages of exceptionally purple prose are marked, by the author, with a system of stars. The plot concerns a young woman going to stay with relatives who live life in great dramatic scenes with overwrought situations and dialogue. Our heroine, with determination and common sense sorts everything out. It is very funny and rewards multiple readings. It was never meant as a satire on Lawrence, but it does read very much like that. When I came to read the Lawrence I just kept giggling at all the scenes of huge emotional turmoil. I might have achieved a better grade if I had been able to see the true value of Lawrence’s writing. More than that, I still value the ability to see what is overwrought and ridiculous, and I think that is rather more important.
I grew up in a small provincial town. It had a ramshackle, mulligan stew of a museum which lurked beneath the main structure of the town hall. The entrance to the museum was guarded by a moth-eaten stuffed Polar Bear which reared in a threatening pose with a glassy-eyed stare. Somehow it never looked realistic or frightening even to my timid ten-year old self. Within the low-ceilinged, ill-lit chambers of the museum were jumbled selections of dusty glass cases with collections of coins, flint axes and pottery shards, in no particular order of date. There were bird’s eggs and maps, charters and curios from foreign travels. In one case near the exit was a stuffed pangolin. With its plated armour of horny scales it looked somewhere between a miniature dinosaur and an anteater. There was little explanation as to what a pangolin was or where it is found. This very imperfect set of information was perfect for raising my nascent imagination. What I didn’t know I filled in from what I could imagine.
These days the museum has moved to a new, modern site which allows easy access and is well laid-out and welcoming. Something I found on an archaeological site is exhibited there, and a much greater find, a near complete bronze-age sea-going boat is upstairs after being found, excavated and conserved. It was found by a friend of mine and is a stunning exhibit, well worth the entrance fee on its own. The information provided is first class and complete for all but doctorate level students.
My memory is more like the old museum with random memories in forgotten corners. I am prone to making random connections between pieces of retained information. Sometimes it is difficult to follow my lines of reasoning and connections, even for me. What I am certain of is that I would not have been inspired by the new museum to look up what a pangolin was in the encyclopaedia.
Today, 1st March 2012 is World Book Day, and I’ve hardly noticed in the media. I think it would be a good idea to nominate one book that is your favourite and add just a few words about why you like it so much. Maybe we can add some voting buttons in a couple of days and find out what authors like to read.
So, in order to get the ball rolling I suppose that I had better suggest one. This book makes me laugh and it makes me think. Using the device of placing the action in an entirely invented world the author can examine subjects that would have a fatwa called against him/her if set in this world. Finally, I like a book that doesn’t talk down to me, and requires me to have a little general knowledge in order to appreciate the jokes. Oh yes, and there is a true deus ex machina plot denouement at the end.
So here is my book, Smalll Gods, by Terry Pratchett.
There seems to be a lot of advice about writing which centres on the advice that you should write about what you know. This is fine if you want to write a book about your hobby or attempt an autobiography, but that rather limits your potential market. Of course there are occasional exceptions to that rule, I was thinking of ‘Zen and the Art of Mororcycle Maintenance’, but after that I am struggling.
If you are writing a crime novel or thriller you can stick to a gritty real-life format, such as the Police procedural novel, but this is more likely to involve research than personal experience. And if you have a leading character, and nearly all such books do, then they don’t have to be like you. My hero (anti-hero?) is a six foot two blond twenty five year old aristocratic athelete who is a serial seducer of women. There are very few points where we nearly meet, or would have met thirty five years ago. I suppose what remains of my hair is fair, but otherwise…..
Raymond Chandler offered a good piece of advice about what to do if the plot gets boring; have someone come into the room brandishing a gun. The trouble is that you can only do this a limited number of times in any one book.
As far as I can work out from my experience of writing the fiirst thing you do is get an idea, place it in a background you can write about convincingly, add events and then have your characters be proactive or reactive to these events and to other characters. So that’s easy then. Oh, except you need control of the plot and to judge the pacing well. Then you need to write for your market, to some extent.