Writer’s Clues

This week I have been considering – no, make that marvelling at – writer’s clues we novelists leave sprinkled about our stories. The clue is always a key to unlock some crucial element of plot or character when it becomes important. In other words, later. A breath from the future.

Some are for the readers, especially if we’re writing some sort of whodunnit, whether the crime is murder or stealing a pig.

But some are for ourselves. And some come as a complete surprise to us when we get to the crucial moment.

Writer’s Clues for the Reader

clue, County Hall Assembly ChamberThis week I went to see a terrific presentation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. It was staged in the old Council Chamber of the Greater London Council at the former County Hall.

It is a powerfully authoritarian assembly chamber. One quailed as one entered. Well, I did, anyway.

The production makes a great point about the might of the law. And this was absolutely the perfect venue for it. But the play itself, taken from a short story, is about solving a murder mystery as you’d expect.

It’s been filmed twice. In 1957 was it directed by Billy Wilder and starred Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich. The movie, Wilder and Laughton were all nominated for Academy Awards. In 1982 it was filmed for television with Ralph Richardson and Diana Riggs in the Laughton and Dietrich roles, plus a host of other starry names of the times – and a young Beau Bridges.

In the current staging, the dramatic, not to say melodramatic, events didn’t really get going properly until the second act. There’s a lot of exposition in the early dialogue. And in that exposition there is a Writer’s Clue.

Writer’s Clues the Readers Miss

blue question marksI am sure it must be there in the story. But my companion did not pick it up from the stage performance. “I don’t understand. Where did that [character] come from?” he demanded afterwards, irritated.

I reminded him of the conversations in which the character was mentioned. He conceded. But it clearly didn’t have the impact that Christie or her playwright collaborator would have liked.

Evil Things, Katje Ivar, CluesBy contrast I have raved elsewhere on this blog about Evil Things by Katje Ivar.

Among its many virtues, it has an absolutely fabulous clue which you note but don’t see the significance of until the end.

Then the events are explained that actually led to the murder. And the explanation is a fact you already  know. You – well, I –  just didn’t complete the jigsaw. Perfect!

And I managed both Christie and Ivar without spoilers! Yay!

Writer’s Clues to Self

When the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011, she left an unfinished manuscript, The Islands of Chaldea. Eventually, her younger sister, Ursula Jones, completed it. Her Afterword on the process is both inspiring and illuminating about her sister’s writing process. (Read it. It’s terrific – and spine chilling – and heartbreaking.) About the stories that Diana would tell her younger siblings when they were children, she writes:

It filled a series of exercise books, and she would read the newest section to us in bed at night. When she suddenly stopped reading we would wail, “Go on, go on. What happens next?” and she’d say, “Don’t you understand? I haven’t written any more yet.”

And that’s how Diana Wynne Jones carried on through  45 years of wonderful magical adventure stories that make you think, make you weep, make you want to go on great expeditions and be brave. Her sister again: “She left no notes: she never made any. Her books always came straight out of her extraordinary mind onto the page and she never discussed her work while it was in progress.”

An archetypal pantser then. But no notes? No notes at all? Not just a pantser, a major risk taker, I’d say.

Ursula Jones, a children’s writer herself and an actress, says she scoured the text for those writer’s clues and found nothing. For months. And, just when she was starting to despair, she found one of DIana’s clues, early on in the manuscript.

My Own Writer’s Clues

writing energy magic, book, bluebell woodI’ve always been a pantser. I hear my characters, usually at a moment somewhere close to the start of my, their, story. And at that moment I know exactly as much as they do about what they are going to do and what difficulties they are going to encounter. Zilch.

Into the woods we go, equally clueless.

But I know them. And sometimes I know stuff I don’t know I know.

Take the case of  The Accidental Mistress. It’s the second in a trilogy about three girls in the same family. I knew the girls intimately. So I steamed ahead after Book 1. But oh, the hero…

So I did what I’d tell anyone else to do. I sat down and started reading it aloud. And, there it was, the Writer’s Clue to Writer. On page one. Page One. 

My hero, Dom, is an explorer. He’s about to go to the Arctic and he’s lost 10% of his funding. My heroine works in a Public Relations Company. Her boss offers to help. And Dom has gone into the office for a strategy meeting and is sitting at the table doodling impatiently.

Doodling? WTF? Is he totally irresponsible? He should be taking notes. Hell’s teeth, he should be handing out his own brief, insisting the PR people read it. What’s going on here?

Clearly Dom doesn’t feel comfortable in an office. Doesn’t take notes. Doesn’t read the stuff they’ve given him. Why?

Dom is dyslexic!

writer's cat - kitten at computerAnd there he was. There he had been from the very first moment I’d started writing the book. And my conscious mind – the mind that was counting words and ticking off key milestones in the plot and looking at deadlines [hollow laughter] – blithely went on worrying that my hero wasn’t there yet.

The blasted kitten had more sense than I did.

In Search of your Writer’s Clues

So I have enormous sympathy with Ursula Jones, trying to identify, let alone decipher, the clues left by somebody else. Because it is something that happens below the level of analysis and reason. It comes with dreams, tingles at the back of the neck and, oh heavens, doubt.

But writer, if you’re writing a book and get stuck in the middle, read it aloud. Those clues will be there. You have to dive in and let the book talk to you. And it will. Eventually.

Good luck

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

Historical Costume 1800-1820: Keeping Warm in a Pelisse

© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

1819 pink velvet pelisse trimmed chincilla © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

It’s winter. Dark and gloomy. Though, here in UK, it’s still quite warm. Or at least not as cold — yet! — as winter sometimes can be.

We have houses with central heating and double-glazing to keep out the cold and the draughts. Back in the Regency, they weren’t so lucky. Though, to be honest, I remember a house we bought in the 1970s that was incredibly draughty. I used left-over curtain material to sew a draught-excluder in the shape of a snake for the gap under the sitting-room door.

And I grew up in a non-centrally-heated house with a draught screen as part of the standard furnishings, about six feet high and with four brocade-covered panels. We had draughts and we definitely needed it. Continue reading

Thanks to Music

Thanks to MusicThis week I’m going to be unashamedly personal, thanks to music. Indeed, I want to say thank you – to friends and well-wishers, fellow writers, musicians of all kinds and the universe.

To put you in the picture – several weeks ago I booked tickets for a concert to take place this past week at the Wigmore Hall.

inner reader, mystery womanIt appealed to me for all sorts of reasons. There was history, discovery (some of the programme was so obscure I thought I’d probably never hear it live again), drama, even youth studies. There was a band I love.

And then there was a sort of deep satisfaction in participating in a major enterprise that would last as long as Mozart’s life.

BUT…

Continue reading

Epiphany: Gifts For Writers? Plus a Bargain Offer

Epiphany tryptich by Hieronymus Bosch

Epiphany — 6th January — marks the end of the 12 Days of Christmas, and the day when the Three Kings brought gifts to the infant Jesus. The tryptich above is by Hieronymus Bosch, dated to around the end of the 15th century. But, with apologies to those who prefer the religious meaning of Epiphany, that’s not what I’m writing about in this blog.

glitter, the bane of post-Christmas cleaningIn the UK, Epiphany can be a bit of a downer, an end to things. It’s when we take down our Christmas decorations, put the cards in the recycling bin, and chop up the tree ready for the bonfire. We go back to work, if we haven’t done so already. The fun and games are over. Once we’ve hoovered up all the pine needles and the glitter that gets absolutely everywhere, the house looks a bit drab, doesn’t it? (And, next year, glitter is definitely banned in the Maitland house!) Continue reading

Writing a Reader Review

publish for impact blurbI find it really difficult to write a reader review of a novel. As an author I am hugely grateful to the kind people who leave reviews of my books on Amazon and other sites. I deeply feel I ought to reciprocate more. But the whole enterprise is fraught with danger.

This is a recurring problem at this time of year. Between Christmas and the end of the year I usually read a lot.

I finish books I’ve left midway during the year for some reason. And I read my Christmas present books. I read books I’ve been setting aside so I can take a good long run at them. And I experiment with books that other people have recommended during the seasonal socialising. And I go back to old favourites because, let’s face it, this is the time of year when memories get hold of you and I’ve got some lovely Bookish Memories. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas (slightly revised for Botswana)

A couple of years ago, Sophie produced a series of blogs around The Twelve Days of Christmas and books that the verses suggested to her. Many of you followed the blogs — which are still available here — and read some of the books Sophie suggested.
I was one of those who found new authors that way. And I am very grateful.

I’m not doing anything so erudite this year. But the carol came into my mind when I was sorting through photographs from a mate’s safari trip to Botswana. (Isn’t that a fabulous sunset, above?) I have permission to use the pics to illustrate the doggerel I’ve created, with apologies to whoever wrote the original carol. (For my Twelve Days Botswana version, there isn’t enough content for 12 blogs, so you get it all in one!)

Twelve Days of Christmas, Botswana-style:
you may wish to sing along as you read 😉

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

a raptor in a bare tree.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Continue reading

Comfort Reads

The BBC’s recent 100 Books that Shaped our World has started me thinking about comfort reads. What are they? When do we want them? Maybe even need them, indeed. What do they do for us? And how do we find them in the first place?

And is comfort reading a Bad Thing?

Escapism, after all, has got a bad press ever since the word was first coined, apparently in thirties USA i.e. at the height of the Depression. The Oxford English Dictionary defines escapism as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.”

Hmm. Continue reading

The questions people ask writers… Research in Paris

So, do you do a lot of research?

Apart from, “Where do you get your ideas from?” that has to be the question writers are most asked.

And the answer is, for me, yes, actually.

Quite a lot.

Pinterest, Google, Youtube

Even before I put finger to keyboard I scour Pinterest, seeking ideas for locations, looking for photographs of places and characters as I build my storyboard. This is the one I’ve created for A Harrington Christmas (it’s a working title!)

Mostly, after that, it will be diving into Google as questions crop up? What is the temperature in Nantucket in March? What is the time difference between Paris and Singapore? Is there already a restaurant in London called any of the half a dozen names I’ve come up with — and yes to every one. Continue reading

An Antidote to Christmas Schmaltz?

Town Mouse does climbing SantasA few years ago, we featured polar bears (left) in our Christmas blog. They were fun, in shop windows and on market stalls. I thought they were almost as good as our burglarious santas.

Christmas polar bears in NovemberBut this year, even though we were nowhere near the end of November, the polar bears had grown. I found nine-foot high bears on the pavement in Piccadilly outside the Park Lane Hotel (shown left and below).

They were eye-catching, certainly, but in the middle of November?

What do we poor punters have to do to be spared Christmas adverts and — crucially — Christmas jingles for weeks and weeks in the run-up to the great day? Continue reading

Romantic Fiction, Readers’ Lives and 100 Novels

reading one of 100 novelsThis month, rather to my surprise, I have found myself thinking a lot about romantic fiction and where it sits in readers’ lives. I write it, read it and love it, as regular readers of this blog will know. And there are some times in my life when nothing else will do. Not every romantic novel, of course. Maybe Persuasion. Or Sylvester. Perhaps The Morning Gift. Or…

But this is not about me…

100 Novels that Shaped Our World

Continue reading