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Writing: art's a gift. Let's talk about craft. Pt 1. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Writing: art's a gift. Let's talk about craft. Pt 1.


I am going to speak of the craft of writing.  Art I leave to others.  Craft, anyone may learn. 

I don’t pretend to practise that craft brilliantly, but I do practise it damned frequently, here and elsewhere, in many a guise.

One of the first things one can – and wants – to do is to cultivate An Ear.  One not only for speech and speech patterns; rather, an ear as well for rhythm.  Indeed, for music.  I realise that tastes, proverbially, differ; wherefore, I do not insist on my musical tastes as the means of cultivating the genuine auricle.  Even the bottom of the pops can be utilised.  The fact remains: if you are – have become – capable of noticing that, say, ‘The Standard on the Braes o’ Mar’[i] is very like ‘Mhairi’s Wedding’[ii] (or vice versa), or that you might ‘dae waur’[iii] than to make a medley of ‘Mull of Kintyre’[iv] and ‘Dream Angus’,[v] or indeed that there’s a, shall we say, howlingly odd commonality (think about it) in ‘(The Road to) Shambala’[vi] and ‘Werewolves of London’,[vii]  you are also thereby a few steps closer to being a better writer.  (You may also become the sort who applies Schenkerian analysis[viii] to thrillers, conflating de Quincey on murder considered as one of the fine arts[ix] with Bach’s ‘Art of the Fugue’,[x] but I believe that the therapy for that condition is available on the National Health….)

The fact is, talent and inspiration are wondrous things.  They are also gifts.  The rest of us have an alternative: it involves the sweat of our brows.  Take, for example, my occasional weakness for writing in the Doric, the auld claik, whether in describing the Scots landscape (I blame JIM Stewart, in his capacity as Michael Innes), or in writing a Scots character; or take, again, my writing West Country rural characters in their appropriate and several Wessex dialects.  The only excusable element in this is accuracy.  If you must succumb to the impulse, as I too often do, you are obliged at the very least to Get It Right.  And as you are reading this on the internet, thereby revealing yourself as having access to the Web, there is no excuse for you not to do: for all of these may be researched, quite readily.[xi] [xii] [xiii] [xiv] [xv]

That said, I am notoriously incapable of writing dialogue for the middle classes.  Peers, peasants, the County, coppers and criminals, dons and deans and duchess, gentlemen and gamekeepers, very well; but not the middle classes.  Perhaps there is a part of me that, mutinously and with very bad grace indeed, insists that this is characterisation, that an acquired and socially-enforced homogeneity is their essential characteristic, but of course that’s wrong, morally as well as factually.  The fact, rather, is that the middle and professional classes of the UK: particularly in England; especially in the urban areas; and infuriatingly above all in the Home Counties: are the most difficult people in the world for whose speech to cultivate the proverbial ear.  Even now, they are notoriously uncommunicative in public, where a grasping author can listen to them: quite unlike their fellow subjects at the ends of the social scale.  And naturally, a writer sprung of that milieu may well have a still more difficult time in differentiating them as speakers, because to her, they ‘All Sound Like Me’, ‘me’ being the beleaguered author.

One can only sweat it and practise as best one can.  And one resorts to other means of showing character: the distaste for certain teas, the sudden and unexpected spinster passion for Everton or Arsenal in an elderly schoolmistress’s breast, the quotidian quirk, the deviant and differencing detail.

And here I think is where things get dicey, not because the craft (and the necessary graft, the work and the dedication) is particularly onerous, but because you’ve been told a lot of balls about it.

Imprimis, there’s the sheer balls (and yvettecoopers) that’s talked about ‘Mary Sues’ and ‘authorial insertions’[xvi] and the rest of the clichéd rubbish.  Put it right out of your minds, at once, all of you.  Taking your own quirks and quiddities and those of your Rabbit’s-friends-and-relations, the odds and sods of your acquaintance, and grafting these upon your characters, is not at all the same thing as the much-derided Dread Authorial Self-Insertion.  (Unless you’re in the ‘Merlin’ fandom: I cannot speak to Dread Arthurian Self-Insertion.)  There is no reason your hero cannot be a complete and happy anorak, who

[l]ike most of the Victors … had seen enough and to spare of the wild, and in the days of peace … sought the Georgian, the Augustan, comfort he had won for himself. He ‘cultivated his garden’ in peace, in the quiet land, the land of apple and sloe and pear, of cider and perry, the land of dry-stone wall and wall-whitlow-grass, of coppices and Cheddar cheese. The farms were trim, the woods well-tended; halt and small station were snug and homely, and the steam trains hooted sharply like owlets as they began their panting ascent up the grades, wreathed in steam, birthing cloud, hissing [like adders], their iron wheels upon the rails making rolling thunder in the cuttings. *** It was a fat and a trim and a goodly land, a peaceable kingdom, a land of milk and honey; it was the country of Summertide, the County of Somerset, secure and at peace. Winter was exhilarating, in its time, but he was here at home, in the Summer Country, on the gentle Mendip slopes above the Somerset Levels, home amidst aged orchards, home ‘builded gallantly’ of Ham stone brought up from the Pethertons and from Stoke sub Hamdon: home, and deservedly – and who better? – deservedly at home in the Isle of Avalon.[xvii]

If you’re interested in real ale, real cider, and real perry,[xviii] in steam-trains[xix] and vernacular architecture[xx] and farmhouse cheeses,[xxi] if you’re a member of the Hampshire Mills Group,[xxii] the Wessex Mills Group,[xxiii] the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings,[xxiv] for God’s sake use what you know, and invest some of these peculiarities of interest in fleshing out and making three-dimensional your characters.  If you care at all about botany, or rare breeds,[xxv] or birds,[xxvi] if you’re a ringer[xxvii] or a gardener[xxviii] or a governor of the Royal Agricultural Society of England,[xxix] do not be deterred, do not be daunted, by some half-remembered half-witted advice from some half-educated half-expert, from using your own wealth of knowledge in creating a world and breathing life into its fictional inhabitants.

You are a writer.  Like Lear and Cordelia in prison, you are God’s spy.  Forget your natural reticence and your carefully-taught nice-mindedness.  If you’re at all serious about your calling, you will pry, and imagine, and speculate, in fashions society frowns upon even now, quite as much as in Hardy’s day.[xxx]  A few days ago, I stopped at the butcher’s – Purveyors of fine swine since 1679 – and noticed, as I cannot but notice, everyone else, wearisomely familiar or new; including one young woman, rather short of stature, sallow, dark-polled, heavily pregnant, in what seemed to me a cheap cotton frock, her legs bare, her feet sandaled.  This being the XXIst Century, she could perfectly easily have been anyone in that rig, from a duke’s daughter (well, no, she couldn’t have been, but only because I should then have known her, assuming the duke in question were not resident at the far ends of the earth) to a ‘daily’; she might have been one of the wifelets of Bath come from Longleat or an early Yank tourist or a LibDem canvasser, although I cannot imagine one of those in a butcher’s shop: the greengrocer’s, yes, asking loudly for organic certifications for a vegan bill of fare, but not, I think, the butcher’s, amidst the bangers and the faggots and the mince.[xxxi]  The point is, she could in the writer’s mind have been any and all of these, or things stranger still (a duke’s natural daughter, who fled her school and went on the game, to become in later life a political activist, say), and no writer worth his salt beef, encountering her in a butcher’s shop, would have done anything less than I did in assessing her fictional possibilities – all of them. 

Now, this is Not What Nice People Do.  Or so I am told.[xxxii]  It is however precisely what writers do.  You simply must decide which you are to be.  And a part of being a writer is to plunder your own and your family’s and your friends’s – former friends, if you do it often and noticeably enough – cupboards of all their and your skeletons and secrets and put them together in new and fascinating ways as the bare bones of your characters.

Secundus, you will also, of course, be forced to go further afield, however varied and diverse your kinship and your acquaintance may be.  And this means research.

I don’t have the foggiest as to what it is like to be Black British, or a Muslim, or even, family connexions notwithstanding, a Jew.  I don’t know from my own experience how it feels to be heterosexual, Chapel, a Labourite, a grammar school boy, a product of a comprehensive, a product of a sink estate, or a Tab.  I’ve never been a Frog, a Canadian, a Russian, a LibDem, a woman, a Wet, an MP – and I’m not standing now, or ever, no matter how many seats fall open over the expenses scandal – a vicar, a Texas cowboy, a naval rating, a surfer in California, a trades unionist (the NFU[xxxiii] does not count), or a rugger bugger.  Perhaps you have done; if so, there is an equally lengthy list of all the things and people you’ve not been and never shall be.

The remedy is research.

You must at once set aside the dire warnings that this is insufficient, that it involves you inextricably in wicked appropriation – and I’m afraid the next slash writer or reader who, not being a gay (or, in a pinch, bisexual[xxxiv]) male, starts talking largely of appropriation whilst rabbiting on about how slash is written by and for women and is their space in which no one else is, save as a gracious concession, allowed, is destined to receive a very dusty answer from me – and that you can never understand anyone who doesn’t share precisely your condition.  (I may add that if you take that advice and write-out of your fictional world all characters who do not share your class, race, sex, and all the rest of it, you’ll catch hell for that as well.  Deservedly.)  Do not be daunted.

You may never be or become, in what of life is left to you, a London cabbie, a Chicago politician, an Irish Jesuit, a Derbyshire gamekeeper, a Welsh poet, a French peasant, or an Australian Lesbian.  You assuredly are not and never shall be a wizard or witch, an elf, a centaur, an alien, or a Time Lord.  If you accept that there is no commonality in humanity (or quasi-humanity, in the case of these mythical creatures) such that a writer can enter into the thoughts and feelings and felt life of any person save herself, well, there’s no point in writing, is there.  But that proposition is, of course, balls.  People are – to put it in Thomistic terms – similar in essence and different in accidental qualities (however important and character-forming those accidents may be); that is why we can write of people other than our own sweet selves, much less create fictional characters.

Because, however, these accidental qualities exist (and thank God that they do: what could be more boring than a world in which we’re all the same?) and because they are important, they must be dealt with.  Pestering people you know, slightly, for the details of their inner lives and their experiences as a member of this or that group, is a rudeness that is not essential to being a writer, and is justly resented by them.  Research can take you a goodish bit further, if you do it at all competently.  As I noted, I’m not Black British, I’m not Chapel, I didn’t come to man’s estate in Tower Hamlets, I don’t give a two-penny dam for footer, let alone West Ham, and so on.  Does that mean I cannot write a character of whom those things are true?[xxxv]  I think not.  Rather, in fact, it would be cheap to use that idea as an excuse to people a world only with, say, Oxonians and public schoolboys of fair complexions and C of E backgrounds, and not do the graft of researching racial tensions, East End poverty, the Empire Windrush, or what else may be necessary to make some attempt at getting into the skin of a character who does not share one’s own (wait for it) skin.

[i] http://www.contemplator.com/scotland/braesmar.html

[iii] ‘Do worse’, of course.

[xvi] As the author, I here insert the observation that that sounds vaguely pornographic.  ‘Authorial self-insertion’ sounds still more dodgily lubricious.  And, absent due preparation, potentially painful.

[xvii] Under a Dragon Moon, Chapter Four, ‘The Things That Truly Last / When Men and Times Have Passed’, http://www.fictionalley.org/authors/wemyss/UADM04.html

[xxx] ‘And all her shining keys will be took from her, and her cupboards opened; and little things a’ didn’t wish seen, anybody will see; and her wishes and ways will all be as nothing!’

[xxxi] Oh, do leave off sniggering, you dirty-minded lot.

[xxxii] I am not, really, joking: I don’t, actually, know What Nice People Do.  My mother’s reverend and beneficed father, and my mother, a staunch churchwoman, should have ignored any minor rules of politeness in order to enquire if she wanted help, preferably spiritual and ecclesiastical (and if she could at all sing, my mother had then press-ganged her for the choir).  My father should have done as I did, and put her in a novel or a film play forthwith, and without asking anyone’s leave, not least hers.  His mother should have painted her, without any more by-your-leave than her son (and grandson) had considered; whilst my grandfather on my father’s side should have brushed aside any conventions, found out all about her and her family in five minutes, and, as then seemed best to him, found her a place, had her to dine, charged her with passing on a shooting invitation to the duke, or otherwise involved all of us in her and her family’s affairs based upon her social position. This should keep the analysts of privilege busy for a good fortnight, I should think.

[xxxiv] I’ve pinched my share of bisexual lads.  They’ve quite liked it.

[xxxv] See Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, Chapter Five, ‘The falcon in its widening gyre’, at http://www.fictionalley.org/authors/wemyss/GOIGOH05.html: Dean Thomas and Michael Corner have a chat about the colour bar.


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2 comments or Leave a comment
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: June 1st, 2009 12:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Three cheers for Rare Breeds!

Hip, Hip, Boreray!!!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 1st, 2009 01:12 pm (UTC) (Link)

Baaa, humbug?

I suspected that wd be yr link to click.
2 comments or Leave a comment