Monday, 10 September 2007

Working methods

I am always interested in how writers go about their work. This is not just the everyday nosiness of wondering what their workspace looks like (although it is partly that), but a curiosity about the mental processes involved, how they organize their material, and whether they have specific quirks.

Take me, for example. I cannot sit with my back to the door. I don’t like to do that in any situation, but when it comes to writing it is a big no-no. The same goes for writing in company. I can happily scribble notes and ideas wherever they occur to me, but when it comes to writing proper, I have to be alone. The thought of sitting at the kitchen table whilst the family conducts its merry business about me as I work is the stuff of nightmares.

This is partly because I like to be organized. I have to have everything to hand. My notes are put into ring binders; my reference books have to be in the right order so I can pick them up with having to look; my coffee mug needs to be where the cat won’t shed hairs into it when she wanders across the desk.

But this is just surface stuff. Down in the recesses of the mind where no one else would be wise to venture, I also have to work in a certain way. I didn’t become conscious of this until recently, when I was researching ‘Charlie Cornelius’, but I am extremely visual. That is, I have to be able to see a scene in my head before I can write it down.

The realisation came because ‘Charlie Cornelius’ is the first book I have written with full and fast access to the Internet. I have been able to track thousands of photographs of the period, some of them very specific. As I was doing this, I found I was putting them into folders in story order. I was creating a storyboard, much as they do in the pre-production stage of film making.

I got quite excited about this (sad, isn’t it) and thought back to all the other fiction I had written over the years. My notes were littered with sketches, photos, and references to places I knew well. I remember visiting the locations in Wealden Hill and its sequel, Hob, taking photographs, pacing out and timing distances, making notes. And with the sections in Wealden Hill that take place in faery, vivid dreams came to my aid.

I would, as I did with my other novels, play each scene in my head until I had the background detail, the character’s movements, their speech, their clothes… rehearsing it over and again until I could write a description of the scene as economically as possible.

In some cases, of course, I had to use my imagination. I have never been inside Thames House or handled the trigger mechanism of a nuclear device, let alone watched a zero point energy powered spacecraft emerge from the waters of Loch Ness, but research can make imagining those things so much easier.

Up to now, however, I have not based my characters on real people. That is, I have not used pictures of actual people to generate descriptions. In this respect, Charlie is new step. All the characters have been of my own making, except for Charlie herself. I know precisely what she looks like as an adult as I saw a face and knew that she was Charlie. From that I have been able to construct in my mind a picture of Charlie as a child and how she looks as she grows up. Whether anyone else will recognise the actress on whom her features are based is another matter, but it has, for me, added another dimension to a character who is very much a living being.


Anne Brooke said...

All very interesting stuff! I definitely see actors and think: yes! that could be "x" or "y"!



Graeme K Talboys said...

And a great excuse for all the pictures of the 'photogenic' ones pinned up on the wall ;-)

Lane said...

You sound very organised in your writing:))

Circumstances have forced me to write with constant interruptions and noise but the real nitty-gritty has to be done in silence.

I have a character at the moment in search of a face. She has undergone a few of transplants but all unsuccessful. I shall continue the search...:))

Graeme K Talboys said...

The organised bit comes from my parents and a succession of very small flats.

There are, of course, different definitions of silence. Sometimes I put the headphones on and use music to create a mood.

Good luck with the search.

JJ said...

That's so interesting. I don't think I'd realised it about myself that I need to see things in my head first, before I begin to write. It's a valuable lesson having realised it reading your post. Thank you.

Graeme K Talboys said...

It's a useful insight, and glad to have been of help. I wonder how much this is to do with living in an age where moving images are ubiquitous?

Andrew said...

It drives me crazy. I desperately want a picture of my character...but I never find one. I think I made her too unique. I think that's part of who she is...someone who absolutely stands out in a crowd...a freak of nature if you will.

liz fenwick said...

I can write any where with many distractions but not music. It carries me away unless it's quiet classical. I too have to visualize everything. i see the whole scene in front of me and then pick out the details and the nuances i want the reader to see......interesting post and thanks for making me look at my own 'work methods' ;-)

Graeme K Talboys said...

Every writer should come equipped with an artist. I wonder if there is software that allows you to 'build' faces (a bit more accurately than a WeeMee)? I see another displacement activity looming.

Graeme K Talboys said...

As my father used to say, "How can you concentrate on your homework with all that noise going on?"

I can't do it with all music, but there are certain pieces and certain bands that put me in the zone - man.

Andrew said...

There is some face-building software out there. Have you checked out Second Life where you can build a whole character? I just didn't have the patience to fiddle with it endlessly and my character looked hideous...

Viki Lane said...

Very interesting reading, Grum. I find, in particular with my character Tyrone, that I fade into the background when I'm writing about him; I can see him in my mind almost like one 'sees' memories, and the words seem to come from him. It's weird and invigorating in equal measure.
*scuttling off to do a backup*

Graeme K Talboys said...

Hi Viki, good to see you. I'm much the same with Charlie. It really is very much like she drops round for tea and crumpets (must get some muffins organized) and tells me what happened next.

Perhaps we are just a bit mad; or maybe chosen as the mouthpiece of a character whose story has to be written.

john said...

i used to have a desk in front of my bedroom door but I have removed it now. I do all my typing on my bed, usually write it in pencil first and then type it up after and edit.

I sometimes write with music on low in the background, only if its generating the right mood for a scene or character (i have been known to put songs on repeat for an hour while doing this).

Always write with no one around. I need a controled environment when writing.

I do sometimes use people, actors etc to help with characters. I use the way that person looks and then think of them acting a character, someone I think they could play. I imagine how they would say thing etc.

KeVin K. said...

Fascinating stuff.

Physically, I used to do all my writing late at night in the kitchen so I could act the scenes out as I wrote. Now I have a laptop and write in a coffee shop. Back to the crowd, facing the window so there's no glare on my screen and baseball cap pulled low so all I can see is my laptop, notes, and coffee cup. Usually the babble of conversation behind me is a white noise, like surf or a brook, that helps me focus. If I find myself getting caught by threads of conversation I apply the headphones. Julian Breem, Leo Kottke, or maybe John Coultrane; nothing with words. The only thing I really miss is the ability to act out my scenes. Though I think if I asked nicely they'd move a few tables back for me. And access to the internet has made the process of research both fantastically easy and addicting.

Mentally, I write all the time. I don't think I think as much about what I am doing as you do, though.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Ah. Now that I would like to see... acting out the scenes in a café. And, oh, the internet. Such a boon for research, but as you say, oh so seductive.