It’s all about the story…
When I start writing a novel, I’m not sure where the story is going to lead. But, as an author of both adult and children’s fiction, I do at least know which audience the novel is aimed at. Other than that, once the seed is planted, I wait to see what grows.
I don’t tend to plan in great detail. I have a rough outline that develops as I go and I usually have some key points or scenes or turning points that I’m aiming for. And I don’t always have an ending in mind, preferring it to, in the words of author, Rose Tremain, ‘be earned by all that will go before it’. It’s not till the redrafting stage that I check it all out for rhythm, relevance and cohesion.
So how do I work when creating a novel? What is the process I follow? Why do I write what I write?
It usually begins with a character.
Rosie in Change of Life first presented herself to me when I was wrote a short story for a competition. The story didn’t win any prizes, but Rosie stayed with me. However, it wasn’t until the writer, Ali Smith, who was the tutor on an Arvon Foundation residential course that I attended, said that the short story had a novel in it trying to get out that I dared to take Rosie further.
Rachel in Displacement came to me when I was in the garden hanging out washing. I paused to look out over the croft and the loch beyond and there she was––not in a hallucination or anything––but in my head, in my ear telling a bit of her story.
But Caitlin in The Silver Locket wasn’t my original inspiration. She came after the setting and plot popped into my head. I was still working as a primary school teacher at the time and was on a visit to The Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre along with a class of Primary Six pupils. They’d been learning all about the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie in class, hence the visit. We were out on the battlefield re-enacting, with great relish, the Jacobite charge at the Redcoat army. And the idea came to me: what if time slipped and we were suddenly transported back to 1746 and the actual battle? It was a short step from there to children’s adventure story and Caitlin and her two friends soon made themselves known.
And the characters lead me to issues.
It’s the issues the characters are facing that give the story its heart. The plot arises out of how the characters deal with the issues facing them and it’s from those issues that the themes in my novels appear.
Now, I recently did a post on the role and use of themes in fiction generally and in my own writing in particular. And in that post I explored the notion that literary fiction is driven by themes whereas commercial fiction relies more on character, plot and setting. I came to the conclusion that the divide between the two sides of fiction is often an artificial one.
I don’t write literary fiction, at least I don’t think I do, but I can’t seem to avoid themes any more than I can avoid using characters.
For example, in Change of Life the issues faced by Rosie include her having breast cancer and suspecting her husband has been unfaithful. This meant the book dealt with the themes of one’s own mortality, and of marital love and trust. In Displacement issues faced by the characters include the disorientating and devastating loss of a soldier son, the loss of one’s sense of purpose and place in the world, the end of a long career, and falling in love in later life. This led to the themes of politics, war and the displacement of people being explored, along with those of love, bereavement and the significance of home. And even in my children’s book, The Silver Locket, there were themes, those of loyalty, bravery and self-reliance.
And then there is the question of setting.
In my first novel, the setting of the city of Edinburgh and its neighbouring area of East Lothian, wasn’t crucial or significant to the action, but my characters had to live somewhere. And so I chose the place I was born and lived in for most of my life up to that point.
Setting was, however, crucial in Displacement. By the time I came to write it I’d moved north to the highlands of Scotland. The character of Rachel presented herself as a native of the Isle of Skye. Not only that though, she was also the daughter of a German Jew who’d arrived in Scotland as a child refugee just before the Second World War. I’d recently watched a TV documentary on the Kindertransport when this part of Rachel’s biography came to me. And, having Rachel’s story take place both in her island home and during her visit to Israel to explore her heritage, allowed me to explore and describe two settings I know well. They were also ideal places in which to deal with the themes of displacement, oppression and cultural destruction as they all loom large in Scottish history and of course persist in the Middle East today.
And of course in The Silver Locket the setting was also crucial. There would have been no story for the three young friends without the time travel that took them back to the setting of eighteenth-century Scotland. The setting allowed them to escape their everyday twenty-first century lives, escape their parents and grow in independence and confidence. It allowed them to have their adventure.
And what of the plot?
So, I take all these ingredients and I just crack on. I go to the desk and I mix and remix them till they hold together in a coherent mass. The characters, their situations and their issues all come together and I make a story.
Why do I write what I write? I can’t help myself. I write what I’ve got to write. I write about what’s important to me. I write the sort of books I want to read.
In my adult fiction, I address the lives of real, middle-aged contemporary women. I address the realities of reaching fifty or sixty years old, the realities of maintaining a long-term marriage, or of starting a new relationship or a new career, of coping with bereavement and one’s own mortality.
Yes, there’s romance in my novels, but it’s tinged with the realism of experience. Happy ever after is just a phase; the real work starts after that––and this is central to the novel I’m working on at the moment which is the sequel to Displacement. And I like to present the positive sides to being older and a bit wiser, to include the new possibilities and opportunities that go with ageing.
And I also like the stories I write (and read) to move beyond ‘the village’ of much contemporary fiction and to travel from the personal to its links with the universal. And if all that involves the big themes, borders on the literary, and makes categorising my books difficult, so be it.
Because in the end, whether the writing is for adults or children, and whether as writer or reader, all that really counts for me is, is it a good story?