Sunday, 27 October 2013

Setting or Characters – Which Comes First?

For me, story always begins with setting. It’s rarely a person, it’s rarely a ‘what if’, it’s usually a strong sense of place. It can be a place I’ve read about, it can be a place I’ve imagined, but, best of all, it can be a place I’ve visited. And it’s not usually in the present day. No, I don’t time travel, although that would be so useful, but instead, buildings and settings hold onto their history, their stories, and if you’re quiet and careful, you can hear them.

As a child I remember going to the Tower of London for the first time and really being able to imagine what life was like in the White Tower. The walls seemed to be alive with the memories of the people who’d lived there. I went back there recently and still got that feeling.

I’m lucky to live in London – lucky for the stories I write – in that there are so many buildings, streets, alleys that are just as they were when they were built. And if that’s not enough, we have fantastic museums that recreate whole worlds for you. TheMuseum of London has the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, as well as a whole gallery of Victorian shops. You can see a cell from Newgate Gaol too. Their Docklands museum has a wonderful model of the original London Bridge, as well as Sailor Town, a reconstruction of Victorian Wapping. You’re instantly transported to the heart of your story, and if you wait there long enough, your characters will come to you.

The Museum of London has a wonderful app based on Dickens' London - a series of interactive graphic novels. The first episode is free and is well worth a look.

My current novel was inspired by a visit to a Victorian mortuary in Rotherhithe. The building is now used by the local community so there is very little of the mortuary to be seen. I was quite taken, though, with the steel beam in the post mortem room from which they would hang bodies from the river to drip dry! But as I listened to the guide telling us how the building had been used, I could re-create that original mortuary, and its people, as I walked from room to room.

So, my world comes first and then, as it gets richer and richer, the characters start to come. Sometimes they just drift by, sometimes they flood in, but if I let my setting become real, they will definitely come and live in it.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Music and Writing

Words are words, right? Fiction or song – both tell a story, both paint a picture. I guess different songs resonate with different people, but we all have songs that fill our minds with image and atmosphere. I remember listening (all those years ago) to David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album for the first time. I found Future Legend quite frightening. It immediately conjured up a dystopian world of death, destruction, and decay. Even now, it makes me think of dark alleys, fractured neon signs, hopelessness and depravity. Bowie created a fascinating world, and it’s one I keep meaning to tap into. It would make a great setting for a novel.

The BBC used Nick Cave’s utterly brilliant Red Right Hand in Peaky Blinders (I know, here I go again!). Although it’s a modern song in a (an?) historical setting, it works. In fact, they couldn’t have chosen anything more perfect. It chills you to the bone, and you immediately know what sort of world you’re entering. And it’s no fairy tale. Here’s the excellently splendid video. As an aside, I used to work at the record label and remember Nick Cave in his druggy days, staggering about the office. He’s turned out rather well!

As I’m writing gangy stuff, I’m also listening to the soundtrack to Rocknrolla. It’s great because it has little spoken clips from the film. Yes, they’re modern day gangsters but, hey, a villain is a villain, so it all helps.

Nine Inch Nails are also good to listen to. Another band I used to work on, and the reason I decided I’d had enough of the music industry – but that’s another story. Whether you like their music or not (and I love them), it’s hugely atmospheric. It’s good for writing angry scenes, although Hurt is quite poignant. In fact, Johnny Cash released a version of it after, I believe, the death of his wife.

Ramin Djawadi’s stuff is good for battle scenes. The splendidly clever Liz de Jager recommended his soundtracks to me. I know she listens to them while writing and boy does she write a good battle!

And smuggling. I’ve always wanted to write a smuggling story. Fingals’s Cave is perfect, as is Peter Grimes.

You can use music as background to create the right atmosphere. You can use music to create images that can turn into stories. You can use music to get you in the right frame of mind, to stir your emotions. And if writing becomes a chore, you can put some music on and dance. Or is that just me? Sugababes anyone?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

What I've Learned from Cillian Murphy

Ok, not so much Cillian Murphy himself, more his character in Peaky Blinders, Thomas Shelby. Tommy is the leader of the gang – Birmingham, post WW1 – named because of the razor blades sewn into their peaked caps. The gang’s name says why. Grim. And they were a real gang. Didn’t have Cillian Murphy in though.

But back to him. Tommy leads the gang. He’s clever, he’s focused, he’s dangerous, he’s vicious, he’s not a very nice guy. So you could easily cast him as your bad guy. After all he does bad things. I mean, he just has to walk down the street and people run into their houses and hide! BUT he’s flawed (what would now be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that is what makes him 3D, real, believable. That’s why you see past the violence, the coldness, the terror. That’s why you like him. You can understand him, see where the bloodiness comes from.  And, oh is he bloody! He can bash a man over the head in a vicious, frenzied attack, yet we feel sorry for him not horrified, because we can understand why he lost control in the first place.

All this gave me something of an epiphany as I work on my gangy novel. The story is about rival gangs. One is fairly benevolent, the other most definitely is not. But as I watch Cillian Murphy ride that horse along the streets of Birmingham (whilst wiping the drool from my face), I see how easy it is for lines to be crossed. It only takes the tiniest thing to turn a good person bad, and vice versa. And that’s what I need in my story. To make my characters real, to make my gangs convincing, to give the story depth and drama, I need to exploit not just the character’s strengths, but their weaknesses too. And that goes for the individuals as well as the gang ethos.

So it’s back to the notebooks (hurrah – chance to buy new ones). I am hugely excited by this, and I know my story is going to be so much better as a result of it. I knew watching Peaky Blinders was going to be useful!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Infidelity - the Stationery Years

Everyone knows I’m a Moleskine addict. I have shelves of little black pocket ruled notebooks, I have pretty coloured Volant notebooks, I have Star Wars notebooks, I have Hobbitses, I have…oh so many. I even, blushes deeply, have a shelf of limited edition pocket notebooks that I will never, ever unwrap, let alone write in. In short, I love Moleskine.

But, I have been unfaithful and it looks like I will continue this affair. I have discovered Field Notes! They are rather nice. They’re thin, flimsy little things to be sure, but, oh my, they have themes and pictures of stars and even proper buff ones that you can only write proper, serious stuff in. And, faints all over the place, they’ve just introduced beer notebooks. Yes, BEER! With beer coasters and everything. Now you can’t tell me that’s not useful! And I’ve now discovered special elastic bands for your notebooks, so you can keep them all together nicely – they come in packs of three.

So, hurrah for Moleskine and hurrah for Field Notes, but also, it’s hurrah for Katy & June! These are more for diary stuff, and to do list stuff than writing but boy are they useful! I’m toying with the idea of this splendid diary that I know will make all the difference to my project planning! How could I not buy it?

Infidelity. Is it such a bad thing, after all?