Writing as a Not So Solitary Job by Christine Duncan

Writing must look easy from the outside. I know everyone I know has an idea for a book. Most of them will tell me they don’t have time to write it, so they offer me their ideas for free. Free or not, a book is more than a single idea. It’s more of a collection of them. And I’ve never been lucky enough to have the hard work done for me.
But I guess that is what most of us who read writing blogs, or write them, already know. The writing is worked out gradually, piece by piece. If we’re lucky, we find a blog or a book that takes a bit of the mystery out of the whole thing, distilling it down to some reachable piece of craft, or at least showing us that other writers struggle with the same stuff.
Or, as we often do here, we put the questions out there, and hope some other helpful writer has the answer. I know that is what all those people who want to tell me what to write MEAN to do. If you ask me, it turns out that even that part of writing, sharing the craft, isn’t all that easy either.

Tell Me The Useful Stuff

I read a lot of writer biographies, and whilst they are very interesting, I have noticed some vital details are always missing.

The biographies always go into great details about family background, and lovers, and houses, for some reason. (Seriously, biographers seem fascinated by writer’s houses and how they got them and how much they paid for them).

But, when it comes to the actual writing, the biographies aren’t much help. They usually say things like;

‘In the summer of 1849, Malory Blobbington wrote her best-selling book, Virtues Sing In Descant’.

That’s it? Nothing about how she wrote it? How did she research turkey farming in Southern France when she never left her small Lancashire village? Did she discuss it with anyone? Where do the characters come from? Did she write all day, or just a few hours, and think the rest of time? Did she have many rewrites? Did the publishers ask her to rewrite anything? Was it a struggle, or did it flow easily?

I was fascinated to hear lately, for example, that Dickens often spent his writing time just sitting and thinking, or pulling faces in a mirror, trying to bring his characters to life – but that was in a documentary about the writing of one particular book, and not in a biography.

Anything technical about the writing is often missing from biographies – I suppose because it’s not considered interesting for non-writers to read. But personally, I’d love to know about the technical stuff. I’d love to know how other writers wrote, whether they write like me or not, whether I can learn lessons from them.

Believe me, it’s far more interesting than their battles to get a mortgage.

Short Serialized Novels Anyone? by Christine Duncan

I have noticed over the past several years that it is more rare for me to read new authors. I tend to stick to the authors I know will give me a satisfying read. Mind you, all of them are not best selling authors–many are not, but still I caught myself wondering why. I concluded that it was because life was just too busy, too messy right now and decided that things would probably change when the world settled down.
But a conversation with my daughter recently made me think about it more. My daughter is a fairly avid reader too. But she mentioned that although she and her husband like to read magazines on trips, that it is a rare weekend when she gets to settle down to read them at home. I know that is happening to me too. I page through them with interest, settle on the occasional must read article, and then close them. Often, I will see the same magazine at the dentist or in some waiting room and will not be able to decide if I’ve looked at it before.
Anyway, my take away from this isn’t just, hey isn’t the world just too much right now. My conclusion is that something else has replaced our reading habits. TV has always vied for our off time, and of course movies, but social media is a time suck and our phones are too. No, I don’t mean that we are spending time talking to our friends. Yah for you if you are. What I mean is, we pass a shoe store and think about needing to go there so we look to see if we can find a coupon for it. Or we hear someone talk you about an earthquake in Missouri and we’re googling it and wondering if it has to do with fracking. Or we notice that our running times are down and wonder if that is related to what we’re eating, and we look it up.
So if, as I suspect, we are all reading less, and what we’re reading is just short bites, what is an author to do? It’s going to take more than just e-books to snag readers who are used to quick hits of information on their way to somewhere else. I’m sure that’s why blogs are popular now. But how do we use that with novel length fiction? Suggestions anyone?

Keeping Track

I always forget my character’s eye colour.

I can just about remember hair colour.

I often forget something vital about their personality.

In other words, I have great difficulty remembering all the little details about all my characters. (Apparently, contrary to what I imagined, George R.R. Martin keeps it all in his head. I don’t know how. He must have a brain the size of a planet.)

I’m not the only one who forgets the details. Arthur Conan Doyle referred to Sherlock Holmes’s housekeeper as Mrs Hudson in every story but one, when he referred to her as Mrs Turner. And Dr Watson’s war wound kept migrating from his shoulder to his leg.

So, I bought an address book (although I had to go several different places to find one. Apparently there just isn’t the demand any more). A nice big thick one. Every character has an entry with name, physical appearance, salient facts and a few terse notes on character. Just enough to jog my memory. I just have to remember to enter people as I create them.

Now I just have to careful not to lose my character guide.

Happy Labor Day Everyone! by Christine Duncan

New Characters

This is what I do when I need a few more characters.

I go and sit in some public place – not a coffee shop or a pub, I need a constant flow of people. I’ve used Trafalgar Square before.

Then I sit down and watch people. I watch people go by, and in those few seconds, I give them a name, a job, and a couple of characteristics. It has to be based on the way they look and walk, and the clothes they way and what they are doing. Are they bankers or hippies, polite or rude, smart or scruffy?

You shouldn’t pick and choose. Try and do this for everyone who walks by, that way you get a good mix of people that perhaps you wouldn’t usually think of.

It’s hard work at first, trying to come up with all that information in the couple of moments it takes them to walk by. But, the more you do, the quicker you get. And when I do this, by the end of an hour or so, I’ve usually got a couple of characters, with names and looks and clothes and jobs and quirks ready to slot into a story.

Accents by Christine Duncan

A lot has been written about writing with accents. Do you spell the words the way the character would say it and risk having the reader not understand? Do you just suggest the accent, by say, making your German character not use contractions, and use occasional German phrases(which also could be a risk for losing the reader?)
It’s a fun debate but in the end, what I think is more interesting is the character’s reactions to each other’s accents. Let me give you an example. I had a Southern friend who could say just about anything, and because she said it in that cute drawl, people were never offended. She was the most blunt person I had ever met and people loved her.
On the other hand, I have had friends from New York or the Northeast, who talked so fast, and gestured so wildly, that I could start to take offense well before they finish. Accent, the pace at which someone talks, their use of vocabulary matters. And it’s harder to suggest than you might think. But having a character react to that way of speaking, could make it easier.