Another hard won story which started in the Café Stories workshop on Tuesday. We did the art of writing about place. The setting for a story is more than merely a backdrop for the action, when done right it can tell your reader a great deal about your character, and help move the action on. So it’s important to fully render the arena in which your narrative takes place. To this end I gave participants three examples of evocative descriptions of locations in fiction: Dickens’s Hard Times; Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, and Laurie Lee’s description of the village he grew up in from I Can’t stay Long. I let them read the pieces before we discussed how the use of the five senses brought them to life, how they helped us experience the places they described. Then I gave them an exercise.
We had a brief discussion about abstract nouns – beauty; love; happiness; fear… – before I asked them to pick one and describe it using the five senses to make it concrete, by filling in the gaps of: ‘the smell of [chosen abstract noun] is’; ‘the taste of [chosen abstract noun]is’, ‘the sound of [abstract noun]is’, etc. I gave them ten minutes to do this. As always I did the exercise too, and chose beauty. This is one of my pet peeves. So often in fiction a writer says someone or something is beautiful (incredibly beautiful, stunningly beautiful…) without saying how. My idea of beauty is unlikely to be the same as that of a twenty year old man, so I need a writer to give me something to latch on to so I can see/hear/taste… what s/he means.
This is what I managed to come up with, I’m not saying they are prime examples, but they should give some idea of what I’m banging on about.
The smell of beauty is violet creams on a silver dish.
The taste of beauty is Amalfi lemons on a summer day.
The sound of beauty is an espresso machine in full flow.
The feel of beauty is a hot bath after a rain soaked coast walk
The look of beauty is your wellies on our worn out mat.
Once the time was up we all read out what we’d written and had a brief chat about that. After which it was time to begin the construction of a story. I asked them each to imagine a place and use (some of) the five senses to bring that place to life. I gave them fifteen minutes for this, after which they were given another twenty minutes to imagine someone in that place with a reason to be there. Homework was to complete the story, for me as well as my students.
I got so far then found myself stuck. I was quite happy with what I’d written, but I knew the narrative was lacking in some way. Couldn’t work out how, though. Until browsing the Louisiana Channel in an idle moment I stumbled on a short film of interviews with writers about how they approach the blank page. David Mitchell said he was rarely faced with a blank page but if he ever found himself struggling with where to go in a story he interrogated his character, asked her what she wanted, and wrote that. So that’s what I did, I asked my character what she wanted, jotted it down, and, voila! I was able to finish the story. After that it was just a matter of polishing and clarifying which, with such a short story can be really difficult, and it wasn’t until I gave Lucas a voice, and played around with that for a while, that I got what I wanted.
The Art of Losing
A man with a voice like a road drill lectures a small woman in the corner. A fuzz of pop music emanates from a too close speaker. Someone apparently tries to swat a fly in a saucer with his coffee cup. Voices rise and fall like tin piano keys played by a teenage jazz fan. From the kitchen a hint of yesterday’s fish-pie special escapes at each flap of the door to mingle with the scent of today’s scones. Outside the main window the sky lours as if drawn by an amateur charcoal artist, while beyond the side window, beside which she takes a seat, the sun burns. She wonders which will win, the brooding clouds or the sanguine sun? Will she have to hunt for her umbrella, or her sunglasses, on leaving? No matter, she thinks, she is prepared.
When the waiter comes for her order – skinny Cappuccino, no chocolate; blueberry crumble, no cream – she shivers in that ‘someone just walked over my grave’ way. Biscuit crumb freckles and hair like fine black grass, he is a future version of Lucas. Lucas, the kid who bid her close her eyes one summer morning beside a Cambridgeshire pond, put a toad in her hand and when she flinched said, ‘don’t worry, he’s very friendly,’ with such a smile in his dark eyes she almost melted. Gorgeous, gentle, born naturalist Lucas. She wonders what their relationship is now: would it be right to call him her ex-nephew?
Again, it’s not perfect, and I’ll probably continue to work on it on and off for some time. But that’s the way with writing, once you’ve got the idea down you have to keep working on it till it shines.
Header image: Saul Leiter.