Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Non Fiction (page 1 of 2)

The Power of a Good Story

Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When Michael Dobbs wrote the novel House of Cards he had a definite ending in mind for the wonderfully Machiavellian Frances Urquhart. When the BBC adaptation came along, mindful of building on it’s success with a sequel, that ending had changed quite dramatically. Dobbs found himself writing two more books around his villain but always said that he insisted he should find his just desserts at the end of the trilogy. For the audience as much as a writer there are only so many ways a character like Urquhart can end up. With someone that gleefully amoral we want to see them finally meet their match, no matter how much we love their machinations. It’s like finding the right note at the end of a peace of music. Get it wrong and it’ll sound horrible.

Stories are part of who we are. They’re in our bones, in the air we breath. We know their rhythm and are pulled along to the conclusion as if we are caught in a river’s flow. We can only follow the route that’s laid down for us. Writing fiction again I’m conscious that I’m digging out the river bed in a way I don’t normally do. With true crime it’s a question of waiting until a case comes up that will happily run along a pre-existing river. That fits with our innate idea of story. It’s the same finding a news story. It has to be something that chimes with narrative points that are embedded so deeply in us that anything else sounds discordant. Sometimes that discord can work on it’s own but the story that’s pinned to our expectations has to be there as well. Killers have to have an extra degree of sadism to make them into the Big Bad Wolf. Victims have to take on a mantle of purity to sit comfortably in the the Victorian melodrama role that’s still common currency. Bankers and rogue solicitors must enjoy the lavish lifestyle of a despotic Roman emperor to make their betrayal complete. If real life is a little messier, a little blander, a little realer than the stories we expect then we don’t want to know. They don’t merit the ink, even if they are the norm.

I knew the story that underpins this novel was one I could work with precisely because it ticks the right journalistic boxes. Stretching it into fiction I’m struck by the places I can go with the story and even more so by the places I can’t. Technically I can take the story anywhere I want where the history’s lacking but there’s still that narrative river keeping me on a certain course. There’s a real sense of what’s right for the characters, the plot points that just fall into place as if they were always there. Even though what I’m writing is my own invention I’m playing with the historical facts and all the stories that have come before. It’s all about finding the harmonies, creating something that sounds real, that sounds right.

This narrative current tugs at us even when we’re not actually being told a story. How often have you felt, after a run of bad luck, that you deserve a break? You know the way your own story should go and it feels wrong, discordant, when life refuses to comply. We are immersed in stories from birth. How can we possibly hope to swim against that current? The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. Those simple truths are at the bottom of every fairytale, every major religion, every book, every film, every TV show, newspaper story, even advertisements. We no longer question what’s constantly repeated.  How can it not be true? We conveniently ignore the fact that life very often doesn’t work that way. Or perhaps we see it as anathema and feel bitter outrage rising in our throats. That narrative current is a very strong pull indeed.

As a writer I’m governed by these rules. I can riff on them, syncopate them maybe but I can’t throw them out the window or ignore their very existence any more than you can ignore the basic rules of physics. What has always fascinated me though is how the narrative current pulls at us as we go about our daily lives. It’s there in the presumptions we make about strangers on the street, making a whole soap opera out of a snapshot of someone’s existence. We all do it, judging what kind of person they are on such arbitrary evidence. The trick is usually not allowing these initial broad strokes to cloud any more fact-based analysis of each other, but that one can be a little trickier. I’ve commented before that when the time comes to write up verdict copy in a trial, usually alternate forms for each possible verdict, one version will always be easier to write. Of course that’s the version that the evidence backs but it’s more than that. There’s always one version that flows, where the elements of the story fit together comfortably. It works as a story. That’s usually the version the jury goes with. Usually.

Most of the time we bob along quite happily on the narrative river. It’s comforting to have a time honoured route to navigate and usually we don’t question. Why would we? It’s only when you find yourself unexpectedly beached. Where the river feels like it’s spat you out and all the harmony of fitting in with the story that’s always being told disappears. We’re stranded, discordant. It shouldn’t be like this. The love story that would have worked out in a movie, the glittering career that never really took off but that should have followed the path we can still see fading in the evening sun like an airplane trail. There are certain things that, when they don’t work out it hurts more, because in the story of our lives, they should have followed the long established rules. We all tend to cast ourselves in comedies but not every story has a happy ending. It just has to stick to the rules we expect.

We are all immersed in stories. Whether you get your stories from religion or more secular mythologies it has surrounded you for all of your life. We can’t just step away from the narrative river, we are of it and we ride it from beginning to end. These stories can give us the satisfaction of finding a good story or they can be the root of our discontent but they are as important as the air we breath. Personally I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Gateways into Other Lives

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Every time I start a new book, once the idea’s solid and the characters are more than half formed, I work out the music that will accompany the writing. It’s one of my favourite parts of these beginnings, like buying new notebooks and a pencil case before the start of a new school year, a little ritual that makes all the work ahead a little less daunting. It’s my favourite tip about writing and one I tend to give at the drop of the hat, because I don’t know a better way to find the beating heart of a new book when you’re still at the tentative feeling around stage and the book hasn’t really started taking shape. While my characters are still getting themselves settled in having their own playlist seems to speed the process.

Music acts like a shorthand for the mood of whatever I’m writing. My desk is under the stairs in the middle of the house, equidistant from the front door and the kitchen. Even when I’m on my own in the house it’s not the quietest place to work. But once the music is playing I’m there. I start to feel a little of what my character must feel in the scene. It’s far easier to find that elusive zone where the words flow easily and it almost feels like you’re describing events unfolding before you. So far I’ve found that nonfiction works best with a single playlist for the whole book but for fiction character playlists are the only way to go.

The book I’m working on at the moment is broken up into several parts. Each part focuses on one central character and it’s their playlists I’ve been working on. Because this book is set in the 19th Century I’ve been listening to a lot more instrumental pieces than I would normally. While I’m trying to keep the choice of music historically accurate I’m more interested in how each piece makes me feel and whether that emotional response suits the character I’m writing. So for my first chapters, set largely in the 1830s I ended up listening to a lot of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, including a particular favourite below.

Now that the story has moved on a pace and I’m in a place with a lot more drawing rooms. The music for this section is heavily piano based. I’ve been listening to some Bach, a little Chopin and a lot of John Field, like this nocturne.

As the story moves on the action will be travelling to America so I’ve a feeling I’ll be listening to a lot more Aaron Copeland even though once again the period’s off, although as always I’ll be open to suggestions.

By the time I’ve finished this book this music will have become the soundtrack, inexorably linked. When I get stuck and need to go for a walk to clear my head I can take the playlists with me and listen to them while I walk. Away from the page the music sometimes works its magic and cuts through a knot that has been confounding me all day. The only time the music isn’t useful is when I’m editing. I need to edit in silence, or with something familiar but incongruous playing in the background. Without the familiar soundtrack I can better tell if the emotion in a scene is real or hasn’t translated.

At the end of a book the playlists get relegated and I move onto the next thing and the next soundtrack. Finding them again is a little like finding a photograph of an old lover. Sitting in the music folder of my computer is the playlist named for the hero of my first book, the one that’s sitting in the filing cabinet in the next room and will almost certainly never see the light of day. Every now and then I revisit his playlist and toy with the idea of resurrecting him. I haven’t deleted the playlist after all these years so perhaps one day I will.

So if you’re reading this as a writer do you have any tricks that help you get into your characters’ heads? Any touchstones that you need to help you get into the writing zone? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know.

A Womb with a View

 

L'Origine du Monde

Viewing L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris

Last week the Telegraph printed a piece by novelist Amanda Craig pondering whether a woman’s ability to produce offspring was, in fact, the font of perfect understanding of the human condition. The fact that the hook used to sell this rather daft premise was the childlessness of recently deceased author Maeve Binchy took the thing to rather spectacular levels of tactlessness but the argument itself is one that makes me want to bang my head off the keyboard. While I’m not for one moment suggesting that Amanda Craig is representative of all maternal thinking, her argument is one that’s depressingly familiar, and as a woman who’s hit 40 without child-shaped appendages it’s one I’ve heard in various incarnation way too often and every time I hear it it seriously pisses me off.

It’s a big subject but the first and foremost thing is that, as a writer, I don’t see myself particularly as male or female. The writer is a puppet master, inhabiting the head of every character. It doesn’t matter if they’re barren or fertile, male or female, sweet or rotten to the core. It’s my job to understand each one of them, what makes them tick, why they do what they do. Walking in their  shoes, seeing through their eyes is in the job description. Some of the characters will have jobs I’ve done, go to places I’ve been, feel emotions I’ve felt, but everything else is extrapolation. I try to have experienced as much of my characters’ lives as possible but there’s a limit. I’ll never be a man. I’ll never kill someone (I presume). I can think of dozens of things my characters will do that I simply won’t be able to. But that doesn’t mean I won’t know how they feel when they do those things. If I can’t imagine it, then I’ll find someone who’s done it. That’s my job.

It’s the same job for a male writer. The Telegraph piece is only concerned with the female authors who haven’t given birth. The vast body of literature produced by the opposite sex, none of whom have managed to personally drop a sprog, is completely ignored. The piece is written with the assumption that the words written by women exist in a hermetically sealed bubble. That there are men’s books and women’s books and never the ‘twain shall meet. It’s assumed that the fairer sex need their own playing field, that our minds need the same sporting considerations as our bodies. I’ve never fully understood why there always need to be men’s and women’s versions of every sporting event anyway but I’m damn sure that such precautions aren’t necessary when it comes to the intellect. It reminds me of an old theatre anecdote about the old stage actor confronted with a young co-star who favours method acting. The youngster ties himself in knots fully understanding his characters motivation while the old stalwart insists that the only thing necessary is to know your lines and try not to bump into the furniture. It’s acting, not being.

I’ll freely admit to being more than a little method when it comes to understanding my characters but that only goes as far as I need to to understand. I don’t need to live their lives. That way insanity lies.

But apart from underestimating the writer’s skill and insulting the whole of the female sex with the assumption that our words are not equal to men’s Amanda Craig is guilty of the kind of maternal smugness that generally brings me out in a rash. As women we’re told from a very young age that babies are an integral part of the female experience. As little girls we’re given baby dolls to nurture then when we get older we’re told that we will only be a true success when we have found that illusive balance between being a woman and being a mother. In Ireland in particular, with a booming birth rate, there’s little enough debate about women who might not want to have children. We talk ad nauseum about raising a family and there’s huge sympathy with the one in six who will struggle to start the family but you rarely hear from people of either sex who simply prefer to live their lives child free.

In the spirit of full disclosure I didn’t mean to get to this stage in my life without children but that’s the way it’s happened. I do know the pain of not being able to conceive but ultimately felt that I couldn’t face being reduced to a breeding machine in order to have a child. I was scared by baby dolls when I was little. My imagined perfect life never really had a cradle in it. I never really got on with small children. That might have changed and one day I’d like nothing more than to give a home to a child but it never was and never will be the way I define myself. That perfect future that I dreamed up when I was a kid might not have had a cradle but it did have a desk, with a vase of flowers, a steaming mug of coffee and a typewriter. That hasn’t changed.

The Flow of the Narrative

I was watching The Last Seduction with the Husband last night. It’s one of my favourite films.  Afterwards we were jokingly wondering if this might have been the film that gave Sharon Collins the idea for her ill-judged bit of online retail.  It’s doubtful. The similarities between fact and fiction are slim, to say the least, but it’s a joke we always make. After all, if Sharon had simply been one of my characters then she probably would have been influenced by one of my favourite films, I could have made her influenced by anything I wanted.

It might seem like an obvious distinction between fiction and non-fiction but it’s one that it’s all too easy to blur in the writing. Writing a book is completely different from writing a piece for a newspaper or a post for this blog about the trial while it’s going on. It’s an opportunity to stand back and look at how the story flows, to find the rhythm at it’s heart. It doesn’t feel any different telling a true story or making one up once I get down to writing. The research and planning stages might be different but once the story starts to pick up speed it’s always a question of following the narrative flow. It’s the same with characters. Whether I’m replaying in memory words and actions I know happened, that have been proved in front of a court of law, or allowing the characters to block out their own movements in the theatre of my imagination, it all comes out much the same.

I’ve remarked here before about how strange it feels seeing “characters” in the flesh when a case comes back to court. Something happens when you’ve spent weeks in front of the screen with a subject. In a way it becomes part of you, as do the dramatis personae.  You can get rather possessive. With recent cases the problem’s academic. They’re live stories that will continue to develop outside the scope of my book. But today I’m more concerned with the flow of the story itself.

Why does it seem amusing that Sharon Collins might have been influenced by The Last Seduction? Because it works with the story. It underlines her mixed attempts to be a real life femme fatale by contrasting with a great fictional example.  When I was writing Devil in the Red Dress I used to listen to the Last Seduction soundtrack (a great noirish jazz affair) and my movie viewing tended to revolve around Bogart and Bacall or the Coen Brothers. While I couldn’t do anything with the facts of the case or the words of the witnesses, the underlying beat to that one was most definitely Hollywood Noir with a rather comic edge.

I’m not one of those writers who has to work in silence. I’ve been a journalist for too long for surrounding babble to worry me that much but given the choice I’d rather have my choice of music than Sky News and radio bulletins. So far each book has had it’s own mp3 playlist on my laptop. Devil was smoky jazz, Death on the Hill was written to an accompaniment of mainly French pop and this new one appears to be insisting on passionate instrumentals of Irish or Russian origin. When I was working on my novel I had a different playlist for each character – it helped to keep them solid while I was still working them out.  Whatever it’s content though the playlists all serve the same purpose. They’re a shortcut to the narrative flow. A way of getting to where I need to go.

At the moment, because I’m at an early stage of writing, I’m still feeling for that rhythm but I know it’s there. I think that narrative flows through life like an underground stream. We all instinctively know what works and what doesn’t, based on the facts before us and our knowledge of our fellow man. It’s that same knowledge that can lead a jury to a verdict or make a novel feel like it isn’t working. It’s that gut feeling that creates archetypes and truisms.  There’s a rhythm that undercuts everything and any story has to fall into step or at least be damn good at syncopation.  I’m not talking about the simple stuff that we’d always like to be true – boy gets girl, good always triumphs and evil gets it’s just deserts. It’s just real life. They’re basic rules that always affect the story no matter what you write – true crime or crime fiction, chick lit or fantasy.

At the moment I’m working on something where hearing that rhythm feels more important than ever. I don’t have the benefit of observing my characters and I can’t make them up. If I get them wrong I’m doing a disservice to a story that has, after all, already unfolded.  It’s rather different from anything I’ve ever done.  But I think I’ve found the melody at last, enough for me to follow until the narrative flow catches me and the story takes hold.

The Blank Page

So my novel is finished and with my agent.  A whole summer of feverish writing and editing came to an end just as the first leaves fell off the sycamore tree in the back.  I’m pleased with what I’ve written.  I like my characters, I’ve got rid of the plot holes and the thing comes to a satisfactory conclusion.  As far as I’m concerned it’s done.

I’m not saying that it’s absolutely done and dusted.  It can’t be just yet.  Up until it goes into print there will still be time to tweak and trim but from now on it’s not just my baby.  My agent’s got it now and soon we’ll be dangling it in front of publishers to see who bites.  Any changes made to the manuscript from this point in will come from either agent or eventual editor.  I’ve done what I can with the images I had in my head and now it’s out there.  It needs other pairs of eyes over it now.

Which leaves me with the problem of what to do while I’m waiting.  I had hoped to segue happily into a nice juicy trial as the Central Criminal Court kicked off it’s new term this week.  But life has a habit of not being particularly accommodating and the interesting, news worthy trial I was hoping for failed to materialise.  So I’m sitting in front of my computer, staring at the wall in front of me and quietly going mad.

It seemed like a good plan to start the next book on my list to occupy myself while the novel was doing it’s thing away from me.  I have plans, notes, even research on not one but two new books.  There’s another true crime and another fiction (the sequel to the one that’s so recently finished).

After much deliberation I decided to let the sequel sit – for the moment at least.  My characters need a rest and I need a break from the intensity of conjuring up all their emotions, fears and hopes.  It’s hard not to be slightly method when you’re drafting a story.  Editing gives a distance that allows a far more pragmatic approach but a first draft requires throwing oneself in head long only coming up for air when eating becomes a necessity.

So no sequel.  Instead I’ve turned to the next non fiction book I want to write.  It’ll be another true crime book like Devil but a bit wider in scope.  I’ve high hopes for this idea and have been looking forward to working on it for months.

So why is a blank page staring back at me?  I have everything in my head for this project.  I know what order the chapters will go in, what sources I’ll use, all the rest of it.  I even know how I’ll tell the story.  But when I sit down to write, the words will only drip onto the page in sulky fits and starts.

I’ve had the same 300 words squatting in the middle of the page for a week.  Occasionally I’ll move some of them around but for the most part they sit there staring at me accusingly.  On their own they look a little silly, insubstantial, flimsy.  They need the weight of a couple of thousand companions before they can do the job I’m giving them.

But waiting for the kettle to boil for the umpteenth cup of tea today I recognise my predicament.  I’ve been here before.  Every time I’ve started a book, every time I’ve started a long article, going back further, every time I started an essay.  This is apparently what I do when I start a new project.  This is the noisy, frustrating birth of whatever the latest project is.

I wish I could work some other way.  This way is annoying and gives me a headache.  But apparently this is what I do.  I’ll chip away for the next hours, or possibly days, and eventually the block will shift and the words will flow the way they’re made to.  In the meantime,  I think I’ll make another cup of tea.

A Room of One’s Own (With Apologies to Virginia Woolf)

Tomorrow I’m back in court for the sentencing of Ronnie Dunbar.  He was found guilty of the manslaughter of Melissa Mahon, a 14-year-old from Sligo.  It’s going to be a big sentence but I’ll write more about it once it’s been given.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on other projects.  I’m getting to grips with writing fiction again which is quite an adjustment and I’m discovering, or rather remembering that I work differently when what I’m writing isn’t real.

With non fiction and journalism, at least the kind I write, you’re still telling a story but you’re also recording real events and people.  You’ve seen the characters with your own eyes, sat near them, watched them over weeks.  You know every little tick and nugget of information almost by heart.  You have notes to work from and pages of facts to work with.

I find when I’m working like this I can work almost any where.  It’s the kind of writing you can do in a newsroom environment with televisions and radios blaring and people shouting around the room.  Any where you get a spare five minutes becomes somewhere you can add something towards your quota of words.  It’s possible to work with half an ear on what’s going on around you because you don’t have to reach for the words in quite the same way you have to do with fiction.

When my characters have their arena inside my head on the other hand quietness becomes more important.  Over the years I’ve tried to write in the odd spare minute but it never quite works out that way.  It’s one thing when you’re purely editing, when the words are pretty much set and just need a bit of a polish, but when you have to produce a scene out of thin air then a bit of peace and quiet to get your head in the right place becomes a necessity.

The problem is that peace and quiet are illusive things.  My desk, where I’m writing now, is in the main room of the house, under the stairs.  It’s where I feel comfortable writing and where I’ve written ever since we moved into this house almost a decade ago but it’s not the quietest place.

When I started the novel it was something I was doing for the love of it.  Publishers and agents were a distant dream and there were no deadlines apart from the odd one I imposed myself.  Back then I had a modest goal of around 500 words a day and could usually find an odd hour or so in which to write them in perfect peace and quiet.

Things have changed since those early days.  As I work on the book this summer I’m aware that I’ve made my promise of a finish date to someone other than myself.  My agent is waiting for my new and improved manuscript by the end of the summer and that gives the whole thing an urgency it’s never had before.

I spent last summer writing a book as well and managed to fulfil that promised deadline but Devil was a work of non-fiction so closely linked to the day job that the pressure of a deadline seemed the most natural thing in the world.

Even though this summer I’m working on the book that has been an obsession for years and I know my characters as well, probably better, than those I’ve watched in court, I’m finding myself yearning for a room of my own.  Virginia Woolf’s essay of that approximate title has long been a favourite.

And I can’t fault her thesis even now.  For a woman to write in perfect peace, without the demands on her time that come from living in the real world with husbands and friends and work and a house and all the rest of adult life, then a room to herself and extremely understanding family are vital.

I know that at the moment I’m just at that stage where the enormity of the task ahead is looming ahead and it seems like an impossible mountain to climb.  I’ll have my story finished by the deadline and the work will get done but there may well be tears and foot stamping along the way when the demands of real life seem too much and never ending.

I’m noticing how territorial I get when that elusive space is threatened in a way I would never do when there’s an article to write or a blog to post, when I’m in journalism mode.  Maybe this is simply the writer bit of me coming out.  Maybe one day I’ll manage to marry the two.  But for now I’m longing for a room of my own and an oasis of calm.  Perhaps it’s time I moved my desk!

Signing on the Dotted Line…

Today I officially signed with an agent.  One of the most exciting things about writing Devil in the Red Dress has been the opportunities it has opened up.  It was impossible to guess when I went into Court 1 in the Four Courts a little over a year ago that the trial I was about to cover would actually change my life.

We knew when Sharon Collins and Essam Eid first came into court that it was going to be an interesting trial.  Not many trials pass through the Four Courts that have quite that combination of sex and scandal.  There was money, there was an internet plot and Eid himself looked like the quintessential mafiosa…he even had a Las Vegas connection.  Even though nobody had died, or maybe because of it, it had all the elements of a first class thriller.  It was hardly surprising that one of the main topics of conversation during those long weeks the trial was running, revolved around who would play what in any eventual movie.

Even the accused chipped in to that one.  Eid was quite happy to offer the suggestion of Al Pacino to play himself. Sharon wasn’t quite so forthcoming – I think she had her sights set on writing the script herself!

As far as I was concerned it was a book waiting to be written.  I had been wanting to write a book for some time and had been looking around for the right plot.  I’ve wanted to be an author since I was little…I used to look at the books on the shelves in the library and dream of my name being on the spine of one of them.  Ever since I can remember I’ve made up stories.  I became a journalist so that I could earn my living from writing and telling stories – even if they weren’t ones I had made up myself.

I might have got waylaid for several years in radio but I’m finally where I set out to be…writing for my living.  Devil was something that was an extension of that living, a true crime book like those written by many of my colleagues.  I’m proud of it and still get a kick out of seeing it in book shops but I didn’t really expect it to lead anywhere beyond that.  A local story for the local market.  Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and Devil won’t be my last foray into the non fiction market but true crime books written about high profile trials don’t always have a very long shelf life.

What’s been remarkable about Devil is that is has opened more doors than I thought it would.  For the last few years I’ve been working on a novel.  It’s very, very different from what I do on a day to day basis but it’s something I love doing and I have always believed in the story.  In case you’re curious it’s a satirical fantasy, not the swords and sandals variety but more rooted in reality, a little like the work of  Jasper Fforde or Malcolm Pryce although it sounds so cheesy to compare myself to two successful authors when I’m only starting out.

Being totally subjective I’m not even sure it’s as funny as either of them or if I’m even making a fair comparison.  I’ve spent so long pitching the book to various agents around the place that pat comparisons like that have a habit of tripping off my tongue whenever I describe the book to anyone – something I’m going to have to work on if (when?) it finds a publisher.  Basically the plot, without going into much detail here and trying not to be overly cryptic, has journalists, a referendum, dodgy politicians and a sociopathic, womanising mythical beast as one of the main characters.  As I said, it’s a little different to the stuff I write on a daily basis…I don’t do the politics beat.

Before Devil came along the novel had been sitting in a yellow folder in the top drawer of the filling cabinet and, to be honest, I was thinking of passing it over and started on something else.  But last summer changed all that and that is how I came to start this post with the sentence “Today I officially signed with an agent”.  She will be handling the novel, and it’s two sequels and, as anyone reading the last couple of days posts will have realised, this summer I will be working on fiction rather than fact (except when I have to pay the bills).

I still feel slightly awkward writing about fiction in anything other than a purely theoretical basis.  I normally write this blog as a journalist and changing key in this way feels like baring a private part of myself that I’m not used to sharing.  But this is getting serious now and with any luck I’ll be writing the blurb by this time next year.  Today was the first step towards that and I’m looking forward to the work ahead.

Rambling About Not Very Much At All

I’ve been sitting here for some time trying to decide what to blog about today.  The courts, as I’ve mentioned before, are on a two week break, so I’m focused on other things.  The problem is that these other things are rather removed from the day job so when I drift back into reality I’m left with not a lot to write about.

I had always meant this to be a blog about writing, but now I’m actually getting down to writing I’m beginning to see a distinct problem with that.

Writing fiction isn’t like following a story.  I’m not necessarily going to have daily updates of proceedings to share.  Or rather, if I did it wouldn’t mean anything much to anyone but me because I’m talking about characters and situations that no one else knows about for the moment.  It’s not a question of writing up snapshots of what’s going on at the end of every day.  The day to day process of editing just doesn’t really translate to daily updates.

So when I sit here my mind drifts in all kinds of directions – and I wouldn’t lumber the net with my distracted musings!  When I’m not in court I’m as likely to ramble on about the state of my (very small) back yard or the vagueries of baking than the latest murder.  When I’m writing intensively then even the garden and the kitchen get ignored so there’s not much left to write about or I get obsessed with something that feeds into what I’m writing in some way.  Last summer when I was writing Devil it was the fabrication methods of various toxins (purely theoretical I hasten to add!), this summer it’ll be the finer points of grammar (I should think).

Anyway, bear with me – it will all make sense eventually. I hope.

The Prospect of a Long Hot Summer Writing!

The courts are on holiday for the next couple of weeks so I’ve had time to think about other projects…not to mention the life outside work.  Unusually for a bank holiday weekend in Dublin the sun has been splitting the stones – in fact today, the Tuesday following, it’s continuing to do so.

Suddenly the prospect of a proper summer is being dangled in front of us.  I should explain, for those reading this that haven’t had the misfortune to spend the last two summers in Ireland, the past two years have been a complete wash out.  We’re not just talking the odd shower here – the summer before last it rained every day for over 50 days, last summer was no better.  When the temperatures hit the mid 20s (Fahrenheit) over the weekend that was the best we’d seen in three years.

Well this year we can at the very least expect a full week of sunshine.  It might seem a rather insignificant thing to blog about but Ireland badly needs a good summer.  We’ve gone spectacularly from boom to bust in the blink of  an eye and if people get another year of grey skies and rain the national psyche will go into a deep depression.  We’re already looking forward to a summer of strikes from the various disgruntled sectors of society…add constant rain and we’ll have rioting on the streets!

Personally speaking a good summer is just what the doctor ordered.  I’ve another book to work on this year and there’s something about writing in the open air.  I’ve always been a great fan of working from coffee shops and there’s nothing better than working outside and being able to people watch when you’re stuck.  Add some decent coffee and I’m a happy girl.

A couple of years ago we finally got around to clearing the back yard of the years of junk that had piled up out there.  It’s now full of growing things, most of which are in flowers now and when the sun’s not directly over head like now, and the temperatures almost at blood heat, with the dappled light falling across the table where I’m sitting.  It’s like a little oasis in the middle of the city and I love it.

Unfortunately the table has been under wraps since it was bought a few years ago…I was beginning to think it was a cursed table that was actually attracting the rain.  But that’s the kind of lunacy that successive bad summers bring.

This year I’m planning a project of a different kind.  I’m going to be concentrating on my novel.  I’ve promised my agent to have it finally finished by the time the courts are back in October…It’ll be a very different writing experience to Devil, the characters I’m working on are my own creations so for a change I get to tell them what to do rather than simply saying what they did.

It also means that I’ll be able to work wherever, without lugging around upteen notebooks ful of research.  This summer it’ll be a case of have pen (or laptop), will travel.  This would be the perfect year to have a bit of sun!

Looking Forward to a Change of Tack

With the end of the first really sunny day of the year my thoughts have turned towards the summer break.  Each year the courts have a summer recess that spans the whole of August and September.  It’s lean pickings if your day job depends of trial reporting but I look forward to it every year.  Last year it gave me time to write Devil, this year I have something completely different planned (well, sort of).

I’ve been working on a novel for years now.  Since I started working in the courts it’s been sitting in the filing cabinet gathering dust but I’ve been persuaded to take it out and have another look.

So that’s going to be my summer this year.  Instead of chronicling real life I’ll be living in my head in the company of the characters I made up so long ago.  I’m still rather fond of them so it should be fun.  Fiction writing is an entirely different discipline to journalism or non fiction work so it’ll be great to slip back into that gear.

When I’m working on non fiction getting things right is, obviously, key so I tend to work at my desk away from the distractions of the outside world. I might do initial planning in a cafe or sitting in the garden but when it comes down to the actual drafting I need my notebooks around me and to be as free from distractions as possible.

Fiction’s completely different. When I’m writing that I could be sitting in the middle of a brass band with fireworks going off around me and I wouldn’t notice.  The scenes I’m imagining into being seem far realer at the time than anything around me.  Writing about world’s and characters I’ve created is like flying, a freewheeling dash that’s only stops when it’s run out of steam.

Non fiction is different.  It’s a far more cerebral experience, an almost academic excercise to fit seperate events and quotes into a cohesive whole.  It’s just as rewarding, and as absorbing when it’s going well, but very, very different.

I remember talking with a very good friend once about these different gears.  I was saying that I find it much easier to switch between fiction and non fiction when I’m working on different projects in one day than to switch between cases.  Facts can get muddled, the language, the way you write in these two different ways doesn’t.

My friend is a translator and also a trained journalist.  We ended up speculating that perhaps the different styles of writing use the brain in a similar way to switching between languages.  Once you’ve got the knack you can switch back and forth perfectly happily, it’s hard wired into you so the gears don’t tend to slip.  Writing fiction and non fiction are almost like totally different languages, at least as far as your brain is concerned.

Neither of us is a neurologist so I’ve no clue how accurate our theory is but it that’s what it feels like.  And this summer break I will be spending my time (most of it anyway) talking in that other language. I can’t wait!

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