Category Archives: writing

Conversation on the Page

Man and woman sit cross legged on the ground in front of a body of water, and deep in conversation.

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Conversation on the page fascinates me.

Even when I’m writing an email, describing a recent meeting to a mutual friend, for instance, I find myself overtaken by the desire to report the real words one or both of us spoke.

I hear it, of course, as I’m transposing it. Or at least, I am hearing what I remember. But does my reader hear it? And hear it in the same way?

Conversation off the Page

Apple orchard in sunlight

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Unwritten conversation very often kicks off a story of mine. I will be elsewhere, not even be thinking about writing, and my imagination will pluck something out of the whirlwind and give it to me. And I know there is more —and the more is a story.

It’s almost like eavesdropping. Even a bit spooky sometimes.

For instance – I was once dozing gently in someone else’s garden. We’d had a good lunch and lot of laughter and she had gone inside to make tea. The other two were talking and I was looking at a couple of apple trees and not paying attention to anything much.

And a voice in my head said, “I can never forget it.”

It was so real it made me jump, even though I knew it was my imagination on the other end of the line.

Waterfall with a man in shorts and tee-shirt siting to one side, looking at a tiger stretched out beside him, like a cat in front of a fire, not making eye contact with him.

Image by FunkyFocus from Pixabay

It was a male voice. But I was quite certain it was not a human one. It sounded angry and sad and sort of resigned. As if it wasn’t really surprised, and knew it should have taken better care.

I sat bolt upright and wrote it down in the notebook I always carry. Though I knew I needn’t really have written it down. Something that strong isn’t going to go away. It was more a sort of promise that I would find out whatever story that was part of.

Conversation on the Page and Character’s Expectations

Cover of Anne Enright's Booker Prize novel The Gathering, showing name, title and a faded photograph of family indoors, with a burn mark on it oThis week, there was a fascinating half hour on BBC Radio 4 in which James Runcie (of Grantchester) interviewed Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright on the “role of dialogue in story-telling”.

To be truthful, I’ve never felt particularly at home with the books of either author. So I was intrigued to hear how they thought about conversation in their own and other people’s work.

Runcie starts by saying, “Conversations change lives.”

I can only agree. They are the start of so many of my stories, that we are clearly at one there.

However he goes on to contrast a character’s expectations of a conversation with the path it actually takes. He illustrates his point from Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen shows Mrs Bennet insisting that her husband instructs Lizzie to marry the oleaginous Mr Collins. Accordingly he Speaks To Lizzie, in fatherly mode. The scene culminates, of course, in one of the great punch lines of fiction.

“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins and I will never see you again if you do.”

How long did she labour over her little bit of ivory to achieve that perfection of balance, precision and poignard?

Conversation on the Page must be Crafted

women sitting on the edge of a platform waiting for a train, absorbed in a book.Anne Enright goes even further in this discussion. It’s not just punch lines that need careful preparation and structure.

She points out that most spontaneous conversation is a mess in real life. People trail off, interrupt each other and themselves, even forget what they were going to say. The novelist has to craft conversation, therefore, “like Restoration Comedy” to make it sound both spontaneous and clear and carrying the plot forward.

I agree with that too. Let the mess flow freely, and you risk losing your reader. That’s dangerous – possibly for both of you.

Natural or Unnatural?

Writing energy, happy writerSo here’s the dilemma. Can you make something sound natural, yet at the same time lose all the white noise that emerges when people are responding spontaneously.

Yes, if you’re careful and keep the natural rhythms you have already established for that character. And especially if you’ve got a good line. (How often have I said of Austen, Wodehouse and T Pratchett, “If I had written that, I would die a happy woman”!

Does Mr Bennet sound natural? Even allowing for the differences of both formality and vocabulary between the Austen and Bennet families and our own, Mr Bennet doesn’t sound exactly spontaneous here.

But of course, he wouldn’t, would he? A man who is capable of saying, “I have not the happiness of understanding  you,” is one who is going to prepare his put down with intelligence and care.

And it is so pleasingly neat that we ignore the lack of spontaneous feeling. He’s putting the knife in and he’s enjoying it. Oscar Wilde would have applauded him.

So it’s  wholly in character. And not very kind to Mrs Bennet, or even Lizzie who is being asked to accept mockery of her mother and side against her too.

Not well done, Mr Bennet. Not well done at all.

Conversation on the Page: what prompted that?

The point about a conversation is that people speak and someone else responds. In my first example I heard, “I can never forget it.” And I knew it was conversation. Of course, it could have been someone talking to himself. But I knew it was not a statement but an answer.

The answer came to me, but not until I had three characters, a local habitation and a name. As I wrote the scene I knew that it was coming. But I had no idea to whom he would say it or when. Or even wholly why. But I knew it would.

And I’ve set it out below, for sake of completeness. Also this is to show that while craft is important, so is the integrity of your story. I didn’t plan this. But once I started to write, the subconscious impulse fell into step and that bit of dialogue emerged just as it ought. And no, I don’t know exactly where the story will go in the end. It isn’t finished yet.

That Scene With Dialogue Evolved

Then he picked up the little drawstring bag, fastidiously, as if he could hardly bear to have it in his mouth. He padded over to me and dropped it at my feet.

“Destroy this foul thing. And never do anything like that again.”

It sounded a bit more hopeful, somehow. I blew my nose – I had found a handkerchief, at last; the pocket had worked its way right round to my other side – and said,  “Does that mean you’ll forget about it?”

That’s what my father used to say, when he told me I wasn’t in trouble. “Forget about it, sweetness,” he would say.

I wanted the dog fox to say, “Forget it, sweetness,” so hard it hurt.

But he said, “I can never forget it.”

“Oh.”

I was disappointed. More than disappointed. Heartbroken, for some reason.

He looked angry.

“I am in your debt. I am not allowed to forget.”

Conclusion: craft is good; but don’t tear yourself to bits over it; instinct is good, too.

Sophie Weston Author

Sophie

Healing Story

This week I have been desperately searching for a healing story. To begin with, I dug into my memory for what R S Thomas called something to set against the heart in the long cold.

But the state of remembered tranquility was not enough. I wanted a story, with a beginning a middle and an end. Particularly I wanted a happy ending.

And serendipitously, the search got me back to a place where I really did feel healed. This is how.

Stage One – Reason for the Quest

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Changing Perspective

Small copper butterfly Image by Meatle from Pixabay

This week has been all about changing perspective. That is mostly inside the novel which is now nearing completion. But also in my routine, my expectations and my approach to filing. It’s been a lot of fun, after the initial shock. But I am still in the process of adjustment. That, incidentally, is why this week’s blog is late.

What happened is this: most of last week I was wandering about the Dorset coast with the Birdwatcher, looking at birds, butterflies and bees.

We’ve done this several times before and I love it. Not that I’m any sort of ornithologist. But I love watching people going about their business. And at this time of year, birds are very busy indeed.

Naturally Changing Perspective

Male chaffinch Image by Meatle from Pixabay

Normally on these holidays I bask in the light, the fresh air, the countryside and being completely completely divorced from my normal life. But this time something else happened.

The weather was volatile. We had mist and then blinding sunlight. We were stalked by a chaffinch whom we only caught sight of in silhouette. The perspective kept changing all on its own.

And then one day we drove along the coast road to Lyme Regis through low cloud and driving rain. It was like the start of a Gothic thriller. Continue reading

Foodie ramblings: gardening? anyone for beetroot?

Following Joanna’s wonderful blog on pheasants the other week, another food-related post. About gardening. Sort of.Well, more a ramble, really, but there is some (vaguely) writerly stuff at the end. Promise.

Confession time

Gardening? I am “NotAGardener”. There,  I have said it.

NotAGardeners” will know how inadequate they feel when they see a well tended veg patch, straight lines of leeks standing to attention, beans and peas running riot over a network of canes. Lettuces, cabbages, potatoes – to say nothing of herbaceous borders bursting with colour, flowers waiting to be picked to adorn the dining table. It would be (naturally) groaning under the weight of food I have grown, harvested and prepared with my own fair hands.

Gardening? Nah

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Novelists, Reviews and a Competition

Announcing PG Wodehouse essay Prize 2022

This week I have been thinking about how I read and write reviews and, in particular, a very special competition. The latter invites you to try something similar but a bit more substantial for my dear P G  Wodehouse. See below for details.

Now, there are many ways of appreciating a novel.

You can study it, dream about it, carry on the characters in your own story (or several) and talk about it until your friends beg you to stop.

writing tipsTo share your enthusiasm with the whole world, all you have to do is write a review and post it on a bookseller’s website. Writers, desperate to let readers know that their work exists, are pathetically grateful for these reviews. I know. I am one of them. Continue reading

Romantic Novelists in Wodehouse and Christie

resolution by letterA couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about romantic novelists in fiction and how they compared with the real thing. To be more precise, it was PG Wodehouse’s romantic novelists. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I have blogged about them before. (I am a huge fan of Rosie M Banks, before you ask.)

Two interesting things emerged from my researches. First, while PGW exaggerated some aspects for comic effect, in general he was pretty respectful of their work ethic – and success!

The second was – those exaggerations. I assumed they had sprung, new-minted, from the Master’s imagination. But just a bit of digging found that PGW had sources on which he might well have modelled even the most egregious. Glug. Continue reading

Mousetrap, Superman and Posterity

This blog contains two main stories – what The Mousetrap did to Hamlet and how Superman distorted an Edwardian hero. For me, anyway.

For some weeks now I’ve been engaged in editing a book that I have re-visited over several years. It has made me think about references which may shift with time.

Something that seemed set in stone in 2008 may have become seriously misleading in 2021. Even downright counter-productive. As, I hope, my two stories will show.

Hamlet’s Dilemma

I love Shakespeare. I saw my first Hamlet when I was fourteen and I have seen it countless times since. There’s usually something new to discover and always special moments of power that stop me dead in my tracks. These depend on the production, of course. But generally one of them is the play within a play in Act 3 Scene 2.

Murdoch's Tower at Caerlaverock Castle ScotlandHamlet is obsessing about his mother’s remarriage. His father, the King, died only four months ago and Hamlet suspects his uncle of murdering him. Not only has the Queen married him, Uncle is now King. Hamlet started with a vague suspicion, but then he encounters his father’s ghost walking the battlements. He confirms it. Continue reading

The Garden in Fiction…

The secret garden…

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

I imagine, for most of us, our first encounter with a garden in fiction will be Frances Hodgson Burnett’s wonderful book, The Secret Garden. The garden, locked away by a grieving man, is where Mary Lennox, with the help of a friendly robin, and two new friends, discovers a hidden world full of magic and life that transforms all their lives.

“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place. The few books she had read and liked had been fairy-story books, and she had read of secret gardens in some of the stories. Sometimes people went to sleep in them for a hundred years, which she had thought must be rather stupid. She had no intention of going to sleep, and, in fact, she was becoming wider awake every day which passed at Misselthwaite.”

Much has been made during the last couple of years of the healing power of nature. That is what Mary’s secret garden does, for her, for her sickly cousin and for her grieving uncle.

The garden as paradise

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Regency food and characters

fabulous hotel foodRegency food is really interesting and characters’ preferences tell us a lot about them. Their preferences for drink do too, as I tried to show in my earlier blog about what characters (Regency and modern) drank.

But this week, I’m blogging about food in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Sometimes, food in glamorous surroundings, too…

Where Regency food came from…? Meat, fish, game

Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet at the danceThere isn’t much detail of food and drink in Pride and Prejudice, but Mrs Bennet does mention preparations being made for dinners to fête Mr Bingley’s return to Netherfield.

“Mrs Nicholls…was going to the butcher’s, she told me, on purpose to order in some meat on Wednesday, and she had got three couple of ducks, just fit to be killed.”

That shows that meat wasn’t instantly available from a butcher’s as it is now. And a hostess knew and accepted that providing meat entailed killing animals. Continue reading

How Long is a Novel?

Image by Hassan Nawaz from Pixabay

How long is a novel? I am at that stage in my current ms where I am starting to worry about novel length. A lot.

This is a story that has deepened and matured over time. The first draft umpty-um years ago was just over 100K words. Which I knew was too long for what it delivered. But is that still true?

I think it’s grown in complexity. But is it really delivering more, or is that just vainglorious fantasy because I’ve been working on it so long? AAARGH.

So I’ve been digging a bit to see what I can discover about novel length across time and genres.

Novel Length – in the Beginning

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