Tag: creative writing

On being observant…

You’ll often see in books on the creative writing process to write what you know about. This is good advice – it’s how you can make feelings, actions, settings and thoughts real. But it’s limited … like if your character is not your own age doing things you might be doing.

How do you write about someone living in another time frame? Or harder still, writing from the viewpoint of a child living hundreds of years ago?

Lots of authors do it successfully – like Michael Bauer in his recent adventure novel, Dinosaur Knights where three children face a terrifying ‘dragon’ (really a dinosaur dropped accidentally into their time by scientists in the future). Michael has captured the children’s interaction with each other because he knows a lot about human behaviour, especially boys of a certain age. So he can place them in whatever time and place he chooses.

Another example is Felicity Pulman‘s Janna Mysteries set in Medieval England where Janna’s quest to find her father after her mother is murdered sets her on a dangerous, treacherous path. We empathise with Janna because she has human qualities that any young girl might have when facing extreme challenges … fear, grief, loyalty, courage, love, … whatever the era.

These books (and many others) work because their authors can feel and sense human reactions, both emotionally and physically. They’re probably very observant people, watching human behaviour with innocent but eagle eyes, listening with careful nonchalance to the conversations of strangers. Combine this practise with their creative imaginations and you have great stories we can all relate to.

It’s like having what’s called an ‘artist’s eye’ – that ability to see the negative spaces, the hues and tones of colour, recognising a perfect composition or design (even if it takes months to ‘get it right’ on canvas.) Like everything the more you practise the skill of observation, the better you get. It’s the same with writing. And you get to use your ears as well.

Have you ever deliberately eavesdropped in a cafe? Or at a party? It’s especially worthwhile if you are amongst strangers – then you know no back-stories.

Here’re some lines from conversations I’ve listened in on (surreptitiously) – a story in the waiting for each of them?

‘I’d rather go a size bigger than give up chocolate!’

‘I kid you not, Jackie reckoned they did it behind the bar – and nobody knew.’ (Unfortunately, the three girls  left then, so I missed the end of this conversation.)

‘You’ll never guess what was in the freezer – a pig’s head was staring out at me!’

‘Why was the gun in the ceiling?’

This last quote was the impetus behind my short story, The Gun.

If you want to read it it’s over in the Works-in-Progress page…..

PS I remember a gaggle of Aunties once telling me off with the words, ‘Little piggies have big ears!’  I must’ve been eavesdropping back then too.

The art of perseverance

There’s one thing you need to learn pretty quickly as a writer – perseverance. Whether for the thought processes that go into making a story, the actual bum-on-seat work or the many months between manuscript submission to notification from a publisher. Then you either pick up the pieces and start another re-write or toast the beginnings of a brand new book.

Not that it’s an easy thing, this perseverance game!

One of my survival tactics is to read an extract from the biography of  Katsushika Hokusai, brilliant artist and Japanese master of the ukiyo-e, the woodcut print. You would’ve seen copies of his most famous works from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji – they’ve featured in advertisements and fabric designs. Hokusai was born in Edo (Tokyo) in 1760 and died at the age of 88, in 1849.

Japanese woodcut printmaking is a labourious, time-consuming procedure of carving in stages into a cherry wood board before printing and reprinting on the same piece of paper – yes, you do require patience.

Hokusai was a man obsessed with printmaking. He even took the art name of Gakyo-rojin at one stage which translates old man mad with painting. Which makes his attitude to perseverance all that more remarkable.

This is what he wrote in his autobiography, probably with tongue planted in cheek as he had a little dig at himself:

From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the forms of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is truly nothing of great note. At the age of seventy-two I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvelous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own. I only beg that gentlemen of sufficiently long life take care to note the truth of my words.

You can see how this puts my obsession with writing into a much clearer perspective. Attitude is all important. Like everyone else I go through the frustrations of rejections. But it is true, persevere with re-writing and submitting and eventually they stop being one-line or one paragraph dismissals. Instead, they return with letters suggesting possible problems or an editor’s positive encouragement.

Not that I’d ever give up doing what I love most!

Here’s a picture of one of Hokusai’s woodprints. Enjoy.

The Great Wave at Kanagawa