Tag Archives: Art

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Interior location – my bedroom, Flat 1. Budapest, Hungary -photo Nannette Vinson

The setting is the signature of many a writer: Stieg Larsson and Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Annie Rice and New Orleans (Interview with a Vampire), John le Carre, the world of spies.

And a surprising literary setting can make your story all the stronger. Agatha Christie stories work so well because in every quaint vicarage with its lace table cloths, jam, Jerusalem and glasses of sherry – there’s a body under the table.

A New York Street

Writing what you know

It is often said you should “write what you know”. A sensible approach, especially for the new writer. By placing your characters in scenes and situations with which you are familiar, you are more likely to invest a sense of realism in the story. Also, practically speaking, writing about familiar territory will save on research you might otherwise have to do on a subject/setting.

Some writers resist writing what they know as they feel their own environments are not “glamorous” or “extraordinary” enough to merit such attention. This is nonsense. Whatever you do and whoever you are, your life will seem exotic to someone else. The fact that you grew up on a council estate/project developent in Bolton/Kalamazoo is interesting to someone living on a farm in Siberia. Remember, the life of an immigrant taxi-driver would quite likely fascinate the Queen of England.

Also, you don’t necessarily have to set your story in your street or your workplace. Think of your Saturday morning football team, your chool, the nightclubs you frequent, a hospital you’ve spent time in or a prison. All are equally valuable settings for a short story, novel, play, film script or even poem or song. Your environment is your gold, mine it.

But I don’t want to write about my environment…

That’s fine too. There is also case for “writing what you don’t know”. Fantasy writers, for example, are (usually) not elves living in Middle Earth. Historical fiction writers have not lived in Tudor England. Yet, Fantasy/SciFi/Historical novels are written and enjoyed every year. For Fantasy/SciFi you need a familiarity with the genre and a vivid imagination. For historical fiction you need to like research. For all the above you’ll require the ability to convincingly create an unfamiliar world.

Bear in mind, however, that while a Fantasy writer won’t get complaints from angry elves about his misinformed stereotypes. A novelist who sets a story in a modern French monastery, and knows nothing about France or monks – is asking for trouble. Firstly, their prose may be riddled with (skewed) perceptions of France and the French, monks/Catholicism/wine-making etc… And not only is there danger of rehashing clichés, their writing might lack the detailed realism a reader finds so reassuring and intriguing.

So, if you want to write about banditos in the mountains of Sardinia, and you can’t go and live there for a year – then research, research, research. Read as much as you can on the topic, as well as any other fiction that has used the same environment as a setting.

A picture from home… A cave. Dunmore East. Co. Waterford, Ireland.


Word up

Bang!

As a linguist and a writer, I love words. However, as a teacher of creative writing, I know that the mis/over use of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs, is the most common ‘fault’ you’ll find in the work of novice writers.Insecurity will have new writers shoehorn as many descriptive words as they can get into a sentence – with the result akin to an over ‘bling-ed’ Christmas tree. The advanced writer will ‘show’ an emotion/atmosphere/interpretation without  resorting to a heavy-handed sprinkling of descriptive words.

It’s hard to ween yourself off adjectives and adverbs. Part of the problem is that there are so many words in the English language, a tongue with more word-families than any other language. This fact is rooted English having sprung from French and German, so there are English words that describe quite similarly (ie “loving” is from German and “amorous” is from French). And with such a lavish spread on offer, it is hard for the newbie writer to exercise restraint. Oh but, to improve, you must.

That is not to say you can’t enjoy words. English has magpied extensively from many languages. Most of my favourite words are ‘borrowed’ words and include: “pyjama” and “shampoo” which come from India (though I’m not sure of the specific languages), “Hacienda” and “siesta” which are Spanish. “Itsy-bitsy”, “paprika”, “coach”, “goulash”, “hussar” and “biro” which are Hungarian. “Smithereen”, “galore”, “banshee”, “slew”, “brogue”, “kibosh”, ‘hobo’ and “shanty” which come from Irish. I enjoy writing them, I love saying them – to paraphrase Frank McCourt, it feels like having jewels in your mouth. I’ve just got to be careful about over using ‘exotic’ words in my prose. It can look pretentious.

And you don’t only construct literary art from words but they also set the tone of the piece and there are certain words and phrases that are closely associated with particular genres of writing. Romance type novels I associate with “tawny” and “chiselled”. SciFi writers invent words to name their machines, planets and creatures such as “Klingons” and “Zogathons”.

Words are fun, go ahead and celebrate words – but do so in moderation…


Hirst Impressions

Herself and Himself – me in conversation with Damien Hirst’s work, outside the Tate Modern, Southbank, London, April 2012. – Photo Amelia Nunes


Art begets art. A meeting between like-minded artists often results in a cross pollination of ideas which inspire, progress and crystallise art projects. Such an exchange can be an intended collaboration, or it can be an ego driven ‘anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better’ brandishing. And it hardly matters which,  so long as art ultimately benefits.

Likewise, great inspiration can be found in complementary art forms. A poet can conjure new ideas from a dance; a musician can be moved to compose by a script. I a primarily a writer of prose fiction but as an Art College alumna – when I’m looking for inspiration, I go to an art gallery.

I went with a housemate on a field trip to London last week to see the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern, the Picasso at the Tate Britain and the Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. All three were fruitful visits but, it was Hirst that had me stunned and flushed with ideas.

I’d seen Hirst’s ‘Shark’ before and was struck then by the concept that the creature did not know he was dead. The retrospective examines death in more detail. Death, an inevitable aspect of life, is not morbid in Hirst’s world, however. Rather it is presented as a beautiful  climax (Diamond Skull). Dead butterflies are arranged in stunning giant mosaics reminiscent of great stained glass windows. Even a grand wall-size black circular ‘sun’, composed of a million dead flies has all the elegance and plush luxury of a carpet fit for the feet of kings. Life/death – this complementary nature of opposites runs throughout the artist’s work. The mundane, even ugly are elevated to beautiful objets d’art. A classically sculpted marble angel reveals insides weird and devilish. A dead, fly infested cow’s head celebrates life cycles. Hirst’s work tells us that opposites need each other to exist. Opposites are each other. Rock it, Damien.


Naked truth

Self portrai in oil pastel, self-portrait in mirror.

 

Writing from truth, using a real event, can lend work real emotion, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader, so they say. And as an artist, it is often your job to stand naked in front of the world.

 

Writing from fact does have its downside, however. Firstly, a straight account is reportage, not fiction so you must add extra spice and colour to the mixture to make it fiction, and interesting.

 

It is important to get to the naked crux of what your story is ‘saying’ and make sure your narrative never loses sight of this point and – so, even if when you were all driving to the hospital, Brad told a joke so funny you’ve just got to mention it. No, don’t mention it. Stick to the point of the story – the story is the hospital, remember, not Brad’s unrelated joke.

 

You may also have to leave out years of backstory if it does not serve to drive your own story on in any way. You may have been brought up by the funniest, most eccentric, most loving or most dysfunctional family in the world, but if they have no role in the story at hand, don’t mention them.

 

Another issue with writing from real memory is that ironically, fact is often too weird and too unbelievable to work as fiction. Your readers will say, ‘oh, come on, that would never happen.’ And you can’t phone them all up and say, ‘actually, it did. I’m not making it up. I once knew this bloke…’ Instead, you’ve often got to tone down the story to make it more credible. Real-life coincidences can be particularly problematic here.

 

And remember if you stick too close to the truth, you may be setting yourself up for some legal headaches, especially if you are presenting another person in an unflattering light. It’s best to change names and/or genders, and settings. Once you make those factual changes, most people will fail to recognize themselves in fiction, simply because we don’t see ourselves as we are seen by others….


Displacing the wall

Anyone for graffiti?

 

Sit at computer, bring up blank page, make a cup of tea. Sit at computer, look at blank page, do the washing up. Duration: 1 hour. Word count: 0

 

If this sounds like your typical writing pattern, you’ve got plenty of company. The sudden urge to do housework, rearrange books, check your bank statement- when you really ought to be writing is known as ‘Displacement activity’.

 

Displacement activity is the bane of a writer’s life. It’s the phrase writers have for all the stuff you do that is not the stuff you are SUPPOSED to be doing. Avoidance is probably a more readily understood term, but doesn’t sound half as writerly. What happens is a little ‘displacement monkey’ in your mind distracts you from the task at hand, by urging you to ‘make another cup of tea/check the TV guide/your bank account/ebay/post on this blog : ) rather than crack on with that difficult piece of dialogue you’re trying to get down.

 

I don’t believe displacement activities are wholly bad. I feel they sometimes happen for a reason. Perhaps what you’re working on needs time to settle, or percolate in your mind and after you’ve bought those gloves on ebay, it will all come together. However, I admit, I think I’d get a lot more writing done if I didn’t have an Internet connection in my office… I know a few writers who keep their displacement activity on hand – as another creative hobby such as painting, and they believe one such activity complements and feeds the other. So, they may start painting and then half way through THAT activity they’ll turn back to their writing as a displacement activity for their painting and so on…

 

As with everything in writing, if you find your displacement activity works for you, then go knock yourself out with it. If it is a hindrance, then find a way to stop it distracting you such as getting a room with no internet connection…


Your Displacement or Mine?

Writing is the only thing in the world that makes me want to do housework.

So, what’s your favourite displacement activity?

 

Weird, huh? I hate housework, I love writing, so how come every time I’m part way through some writing I suddenly get the urge to do the washing up, tidy, iron, arrange my bookshelves? It’s because my brain is searching for a ‘displacement activity’ apparently.

‘Displacement activity’ is a posh phrase writers have for all the stuff you do that is not the stuff you are SUPPOSED to be doing. Avoidance is probably a more readily understood term, but doesn’t sound half as writerly. What happens is a little ‘displacement monkey’ in your mind distracts you from the task at hand, by urging you to ‘make another cup of tea/check the TV guide/your bank account/ebay/post on this blog : ) rather than crack on with that piece of dialogue you’re trying to get down. Displacement activities can sabotage your writing, they say – though I’m not wholly convinced. I think they sometimes happen for a reason. Perhaps what you’re working on needs time to settle, or percolate in your mind and after you’ve bought those gloves on ebay, it will all come together. However, I admit, I think I’d get a lot more writing done if I didn’t have an Internet connection in my office…

I know a few writers who keep their displacement activity on hand – as another creative hobby and they believe one such activity complements and feeds the other. So, they may start painting and then half way through THAT activity they’ll turn back to their writing as a displacement activity for their painting and so on…

Apart from this blog and the Internet, my favourite displacement activity is taking long walks, which can’t be so bad. What’s yours?


I’m a Rooster.

Gittin' ideas on a Croatian isle...

I’m finally a rooster,I’m a rooster – and no, that is not Chinese astrology (where I’m  dog, woof woof), it’s getting up at the crack of dawn type rooster person.

This morning, I got up at 6pm and I sat down and wrote uninterrupted for an hour before heading to work. You may now applaud.

I am not a morning person. Like Bart Simpson, I was blissfully unaware that there was a six o’clock in the morning too, at least the only times I’d ever stumbled upon it were at the end of long stumbling nights… And when people spoke of ‘morning pages’ I scoffed – not for me, I said, I’m rather more the Keith Richards close to the witching hour kind of artist, innit.

There was the occasional,well intentioned morning when I set my alarm clock – but nothing came of it. And all the better, I mused, as I’m awful before the first caffine injection of the day and still carry a warning sign up to two hours afterwards…

So.. what happened? Age, a job, life I guess – and mostly because these evenings I’ve been promising myself that I’d spend writing,  I’ve been too tired post work to do anything more than answer a few emails and edit a few stories (if I’m lucky). The result is that the first half of this year has been remarkably unproductive. And there i was, on my Croatian isle, kicking back on Krk for a few days with my Croatian buddy Marina when I started to think aobut how I was going to get the writing done… and it came to me in one fell divine flash swoop ‘Get thee up early” …

And so, a week on, I set my alarm for six this morning. Woke and sat at my laptop and wrote 1,000 words of a story – sketched out the plot of an idea that had been buzzing around my head for a couple of weeks. Now its on paper and I’ll visit it again tomorrow morning  at 6pm and expand.  And I’ll have it in some sort of shape so I can edit it at the weekend and then start on another idea I have next week.

Moreover, I was so pleased with my little achievement – I was buzzing for the rest of the day.

Lets hope I can keep this up!