Seeding unease into your writing

Birdcage Walk by Helen DunmoreHelen Dunmore will be sorely missed by her readers, and by the writing community. She was an expert in writing richly layered narratives in which the past gains a pulse and history breathes.

In Birdcage Walk she explores a particular period of unrest, the time of the French Revolution, and the uneasiness this upheaval nurtures in England. More than that though, she narrows the focus to a particular couple in Bristol, property developer Diner and his young wife, Lizzie.

In a beautifully written scene full of enticing textures, we go with Lizzie to meet a seamstress who has made a dress for Diner’s former wife, a French woman named Lucie. Through this encounter, sliver of ice is inserted into Lizzie’s understanding of her husband, through the dress his first wife never had the chance to wear.

“The dress was as tall as I was and the silk rippled as it might ripple when its wearer walked in it. The grey was very light, almost silvery in colour.”

The seamstress tries to persuade Lizzie to have the dress altered to fit her, but Lizzie is unnerved by the idea: this is a dress that had been fitted to Lucie, a woman she knows almost nothing about, other than that her husband adored her, and that she is dead.

“‘A tuck here and there. Your arms are longer than hers. I can let it out, or inset a lace cuff…’ Her fingers were coming after me, prodding me as she measured me by touch. I pulled myself free.”

The intrusiveness of the woman’s actions, coupled with the subtle evocation of Lucie’s presence in that very room three years before is almost suffocating. More unsettling than that is the realisation that Lucie had this special dress made for a particular occasion, yet had never collected it, despite having paid.

“‘The dress was ready for her by the Wednesday. I would have sent it round but I had no direction for her. I expected her all that day and the next but she never came.’”

Diner has told Lizzie that Lucie died while visiting family in France, but Lizzie can’t shake the feeling that to have left so abruptly, forgetting her dress and missing the engagement she’d had it made for, the pair must have quarrelled.

For who could possibly abandon such a dress otherwise?

The sensuality of that gown and its silk imbues the page as Lizzie reaches out to stroke it. “It sent a shiver through my flesh. How soft it was. The sheen was like the bloom on grapes, which might be rubbed away with careless handling.” These carefully chosen words seem to me to carry the faintest suggestion of a threat. “Lucie had touched it too, like this. She had thought of how she would wear it and be beautiful in it. We were not alike, because I would never wear such a dress. For the first time I felt no jealousy towards her. She had died instead and been put away six feet deep in the French soil.”

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore is published by Hutchinson, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and is available to buy from Amazon.

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Writing between the lines with Heidi Heilig

The Girl From Everywhere coverIn reading Heidi Heilig’s luminescent The Girl From Everywhere, I encountered an elegantly written scene that shows (rather than tells) you everything you need to know about how to portray emotion through what is left unsaid.

In the 2016 edition from Hot Key Books, it occurs 63 pages in. Kashmir, our narrator Nix’s closest friend and crewmate, has just given her a stolen necklace. It’s one of many “trinkets” (his words) he has stolen for her in the time they’ve known each other.

When Nix tries to give him the necklace back, he demurs, saying he enjoys it too much to stop “‘Bringing you treasures you care nothing for.’” And here the author gets Nix involved: “He spoke lightly, but his words were too flippant and behind his eyes was something I recognised: loneliness.” Three extra words add an infinite level of tension to the scene: “The moment stretched.”

Nix has to find a way to respond to their intensity, and does so by telling him that she does care, and lifting her hair – that subtly sensual movement – so that he can clasp the necklace around her throat, “His breath smelled of cloves, and his fingers were warm.” The word ‘throat’ is Heilig’s choice: so much more loaded than ‘neck.’

The atmosphere heightens as Nix tries “to remember the Persian phrase I’d found in an Iranian guidebook and tucked away in my head for a moment like this, ‘Takashor.’”

The fact she has made a mistake and Kashmir corrects her: “Tashakor”, only adds to the intimacy of the scene, as Nix thanks him again, this time in her own language, and “we both smiled like it didn’t mean anything.”

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Suspense writing with Iris Murdoch

The Nice and The GoodThere is a scene in The Nice And The Good by Iris Murdoch that encompasses everything you need to know about suspense writing.

Plumped 295 pages towards the end of the 1969 edition of this rather meandering novel, it involves Gunnar’s cave, “its sole entrance only above water for a short time at low tide.” Murdoch drops this line in far earlier, building on the cave’s status in “the mythology of the children.”

For 15-year-old Pierce in particular, this sea cave is a place of fascination and dread. He fears it more than the other children do, and, equally, wonders about the possibilities of this hidden space, and marvels over the chance there could be a secret safe spot in there, or whether one would inevitably be drowned.

Towards the end of the novel, his heart has been broken, he’s cross with the world, and his behaviour is becoming increasingly erratic. The cave, seems to be the answer to this – the opportunity to face the threat head on, while allowing it to prise from him the choice of life over death. Once inside, with the entrance sealed by the tide, he will be at its mercy, and that, in his current state of mind, is oddly appealing.

But even this disastrous plan doesn’t go quite to plan. No sooner is he swallowed up by the darkness than he hears splashing nearby and discovers that Mingo, the family dog, has followed him in. Then John Ducane, a friend of his mother’s, swims in to see if he can find the boy. Now three lives are at peril in a dense, cold, alien blackness of the cave, and the reader (in my case, at least), is transfixed.

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How to play with time creatively

Victoria Park cr Judy DarleyIn today’s guest post, author Kat Gordon talks us through how she went about weaving together different time periods in one narrative for her debut novel The Artificial Anatomy of Parks.

At its heart, my book The Artificial Anatomy of Parks is about family secrets and the damage they cause, and is told through interweaving narratives in the past and the present. The Parks are a larger-than-life, eccentric family, and Tallie – the protagonist – begins the novel as a young woman already estranged from them.She hears of her father’s heart attack, and visits him in hospital where she runs into other family members and is gradually drawn back into their world.

The more time she spends with them, the more she remembers her childhood, and teenage years, and the reason behind her estrangement, until she makes the decision to uncover what she sees as the biggest secret her family have been keeping from her: everything that happened the day her mother died, and how her mysterious Uncle Jack was involved.

Here are a few of the things I learned as I was writing the novel.

Innocence versus experience creates humour as well as poignancy

I knew from the start I wanted to depict Tallie, my protagonist, both as a child and an adult. When you’re writing from the perspective of children, you can have them say or do almost anything, because they don’t have the same sense of social niceties.

Most of the lightness in the novel comes from the dramatic irony of the adult Tallie recounting the younger Tallie’s actions and reactions with the benefit of hindsight and maturity. I think this distance is where the humour lies, and I really wanted that element in the novel, which covers some fairly dark territory at times. Weaving the two storylines together rather than having a more straightforwardly-linear narrative also allowed me to juxtapose Tallie’s happy childhood memories with her present day experience, lending poignancy to the narrative.

Victoria Park1 cr Judy Darley

You need to balance your timelines

On the other hand, when you’re writing adult characters they can analyse events better, and think about what’s happening around them in a more complex way, which is also very satisfying for the writer. On top of that, their actions can take on an added level of significance, either positive, or destructive, because they understand the concept of consequence, and that was very important for the pacing of the present-day narrative.

The narrative in the past follows Tallie from age five right up to twenty-one, five weeks before the novel starts, so it was always going to have a sense of progression and momentum, because we see her change so dramatically. The present-day narrative takes place over a period of roughly one week, so it could have felt too quick, or, given Tallie’s passive mindset at the start (she’s come to accept her lack of friends and family, and her unfulfilling job), it could have felt too slow. From the beginning, I was conscious of the fact that at some point in the present-day timeline she had to make a decision to become more active (knowing full well the risks and consequences involved), and that would be when the book kicked up a gear. It’s her decision to find Uncle Jack, who set everything in motion when he suddenly appeared all those years ago, that drives the book towards the big reveal at the end.

While I was doing the synopsising (more on that below), it also became obvious that I needed more of the present day (it was originally set over only three days), and that I needed to emphasise that arc so that it gained more of an equal weighting with the past (younger Tallie goes from happy, trusting and affectionate to unhappy and isolated; present day Tallie moves from brittle and damaged towards reconciliation, but that was getting lost).

You don’t want your readers to skip over one of the storylines to get to the other because they’re not as fully invested in it.

The form can help create suspense

Adult Tallie is able to drop hints about significant events – accidents, strangers arriving unannounced – in the past of which her younger self is blissfully unaware at the time. But also switching between the different time periods creates cliff-hangers, as the action in either the past or the present is interrupted for the other storyline.

These interruptions were something I could play up (for instance, by having adult Tallie comment directly on what’s just been happening in the past before the switch), or play down as I liked; in the middle section, just before Tallie starts trying to find Uncle Jack, I had a succession of very short scenes that switched rapidly between the two timelines, and that was meant to suggest her fractured, unsettled emotional state. So the form is really very useful on many levels!

Artificial-Anatomy-of-Parks-coverSynopsise!

Rather than writing the two narratives separately, I wrote The Artificial Anatomy of Parks as it reads, alternating between the younger and older Tallie’s perspectives. When I’d finished, I wrote detailed synopses of each scene on flash cards, and laid them all out on the floor (it took up a lot of space!). This really helped me concentrate on the pacing and allowed me to work out whether the revelations were happening at the right points; if something seemed to be happening out of sequence, I moved the cards around until it felt right.

If you’re setting the scene for a big reveal at the end (in my case, the big family secret), you have to make sure it’s ‘foregrounded’ throughout the novel, but subtly (you want to pique the reader’s interest, but not let them understand everything until the very last moment).

So although it can be time-consuming and nowhere near as fun as writing, synopsising is definitely something I’d recommend if at any point you’re worried about structure and pacing. In fact, for someone who is so terrible at timekeeping and organisation in real life, I’ve come to realise just how essential those two factors are in writing!

Kat GordonAuthor bio

Kat Gordon was born in London in 1984. She attended Camden School for Girls, read English at Somerville College, Oxford, and received a distinction in her creative writing masters from Royal Holloway. In between, Kat has been a gymnastics coach, a theatre usher, a piano accompanist, a nanny, a researcher and worked at Time Out. She has spent a lot of time travelling, primarily in Africa. Kat lives in London with her boyfriend and their terrifying cat, Maggie. The Artificial Anatomy of Parks will be published by Legend Press on 1st July 2015.