Monday, 11 February 2008

Keeping your distance

Recently, I blogged about ‘writing about what you know’ and decided that it could be boring, potentially for both author and reader. Over the last week or so, having done a couple of talks, the whole issue of subject matter has come up again and again and I’ve realised that there’s another reason why I shouldn’t write about what I know – I find it difficult to put enough distance between myself and my characters if I’m writing about things I know intimately. If I write about worlds I know too well, the barriers between me and my characters come down and I’m all over them like a rash. Instead of writing them from the inside out (me on the inside) I’m writing them from the outside in. And that doesn’t work; at least for me.

As anyone who’s read the FAQ section of my website will know, the published version of Testament is the third major re-writing of the book. It has a completely different contemporary strand to the first two versions, whose contemporary stories were completely different from each other. I kept re-writing because people persistently liked the historical thread more than the modern one. And, in my heart of hearts, I knew they were absolutely right to do so.
Looking back with the wonder that is hindsight, I can see why the historical strand was better. Setting the thing five centuries ago automatically achieved the necessary distance between me and the characters. I couldn’t write sloppily about their experiences by thinly disguising my own – they were separated from me by gulfs of knowledge, culture and expectations of life. I had to work very hard to get inside their minds and, for me, the harder I have to work, the better the result. I’m always very suspicious when a character comes to me too easily as it usually means I’m actually just writing about me. Of course, it may also mean that I’m horribly burdened with protestant work ethic and think that nothing that comes easily is worth doing but I don’t think so. I’m fairly sure that I managed to slough off the PWE a while back.

Setting Testament in a fictitious city was always intended to save me research time. It wasn’t necessary to the plot that the college should be built in a real place so I felt entitled to set it somewhere of my own devising and save myself endless research into the minutiae of what medieval Oxford or Cambridge was actually like. But, with the decision to set the book in Salster came other advantages which I hadn’t anticipated. For a start, it meant that I could play the ‘what if’ game. What if Oxford and Cambridge hadn’t been the only two universities in England for six centuries? What if the church hadn’t kept a stranglehold on learning in England? What would a medieval city look like now, what traditions would it have, what elements of ancient and modern would co-exist and how successfully? All those questions came into the writing of Testament and made it immensely richer. Inventing the tradition of the Fairings was one of the things I enjoyed most about the whole book and when, in the final version, I was able to make it integral to the climax of the book I think I knew that I’d finally found the right story to tell.

But setting the book in a fictitious city also gave me the necessary distance from the world my characters inhabit. I don’t look over their shoulders and think – ‘oh, I know where you are, I’ve walked down that street a dozen times, nice isn’t it?’ Instead I had to look through their eyes and see what they saw, in the way that only they could see it.

Testament as it is now is the book I always intended (and wanted) to write. I just kept getting in my own way. So I suspect that I’ll always regard writing about what I know with suspicion – it just makes things too easy and I need to work hard if what I produce is going to be any good.


Tim Stretton said...

I forgot to mention The Fairings in my review. As a fellow runner I thought it was a great device: like the Boat Race would be if it weren't unutterably dull...

Alis said...

Thanks Tim!

Akasha Savage said...

What a lovely post Alis. It made interesting reading. (I must admit I loved the medieval story that runs through Testament, those chapters were always my favourites.)


I agree that writing about what, or who, you know can totally get in the way.
When I naively let a few family members read my First-Ever Novel (the rubbish one!) they immediately pointed out who various characters were based on, because I'd allowed too many obvious personality traits to seep in!

I've learned my lesson now, and a) don't show my writing to family (!) and b) make up characters, instead of basing them purely on either myself or people I know.

David Isaak said...

As Melville said of Rovoko in Moby Dick:

"It is not down in any map; true places never are."