This is my cat Fudge. She’s a smart cat. She has, for example, learnt how to operate the cat flap. It took her many nights of scratching, pulling, poking and persistence but she triumphed in the end. One thing she learnt on the day this photograph was taken is that you fall off window ledges if you roll around on them. It’s called ‘experience’.
Persistence and experience are vital qualities to bring to writing. Here are some of the lessons I have learnt along the way.
- Squirrel away anything that happens to you that may be of use. Make notes on anything you hear that might be useful source material later. For example, a friend of mine told me about the night her son was mugged. She described how she felt as a mother and how her son vividly described the assault. Later, I wrote down in a notebook what she had told me. This became an authentic source for me to draw on in one of the incidents in Maker of Footprints.
- Get the details right. This is one of the things that keeps me awake at night! In the novel I’m writing at the moment, a park in Belfast plays a significant part throughout. I visit this park every couple of months to keep a detailed record of what plants are in bloom, what trees are in fruit, what stage the rose garden is at. Remember also the intangible things – what scents are in the air at certain times of the year? What are the prevalent noises? Would I have noted the scrape of a groundsman’s shovel and cart unless I had been there? This is all important for painting the picture for the reader.
- Speaking of noting things, my notebook is stapled to me! So many times, I forgot the exact phrase someone used, the idea that popped into my head, the feel of a sudden emotion. So now I write it down, or record it as an audio memo (specially good if it’s raining! Soggy pages aren’t easy to read.) Even if I have used audio, I transcribe memos into a notebook and index them for ease of retrieval.
- One of the best things experience taught me is to stop reading the ‘How to’ books. When I was scribbling down notes for Maker of Footprints I read everything about how to write. I just loved seeing another book on how to create memorable characters, how to use dialogue to reveal character, how to deal with ‘sagging middles’. In the end I sold all the manuals on eBay and just wrote.
- I sat so long worrying about how to start telling the story of my characters that they very nearly had no life at all! I have learnt not to sweat the beginning of a novel. In fact, it is much better to write the beginning as the last thing you do. Why? Because you know your cast of characters then. Hopefully, you would know them if you met them in the street. I would certainly know Jenna Warwick and Paul Shepherd, the main protagonists in Maker of Footprints. Sometimes, I wonder what I would do if I saw them across the road. Here is the beginning of Jenna and Paul’s story:
“Meeting him was easy. It was knowing him that burned bone. There are twists in fate; chances and turns; long straights in the flat lands and winding roads in mountains. In later years, Jenna Warwick traced the beginning of the rest of her life back to this conversation. Here, now, in her own house, in her own living room. If she had known and turned this way instead of that way, would she? No. A hundred times No.”
I could not have written that until I had been with them on their long and difficult journey. I would not have acquired the emotional knowledge to express the sentiment in it.
More lessons from experience later! I’d be interested to know if any of the points I’ve made strike a chord with you.