You know the story is working when the story is leading you, rather than you leading the story. Arnold Zable, author.
In a previous post I wrote about enjoyment I’ve had with the research process. (It’s on my ‘Books and Projects’ page if you’d like to see it.)
One of the surprising pleasures of writing for me has been the process of discovery. I’ve had a general idea of my characters, major events in their lives, and where they end up (some of these dictated by the historical records, as my major characters are based on real life people from the 1800’s)
Within those broad parameters, it’s been astonishing, and great fun, to sit at my keyboard and have ideas just develop, as if from nowhere. I’ve heard some writers say their characters ‘tell them’ what they’ll do and say. I’m not sure that applies to me, but I have to say there have been times when, after writing for an hour or so, I have to admit ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen!’
As a new writer it’s easy to either get anxious about this, or get carried away by it. Overall I prefer to stick to my general plan, but it’s fun to allow a bit of leeway and explore roads and lane ways that open up unexpectedly. It doesn’t mean that all of these make it past the first draft, of course. But it’s fun, certainly.
I think I ‘m coming to see the writing process as more like consulting a map. I know where I’m starting, and where I want to get to. In between, I can take the most obvious route, but I can also take interesting little detours or twists and see what comes of them. Being open to the possibilities is the thing.
Kind of like life, don’t you think?
In January I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery in Canberra for the exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate. The exhibition is on until the end of April 2019 and if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage a visit to Canberra (if you don’t live too far away, that is.) It’s a beautiful experience.
Information about the exhibition is on the NGA website https://nga.gov.au/exhibitions/default.cfm
I was somewhat vague about this group of artists, who produced their works in the nineteenth century. I’d expected images of beautiful women in flowing robes, flowers floating on lakes, Biblical stories and medieval legends brought to life. I found all those things, and more. Incredibly accurate representations of nature in landscapes, alongside detailed scenes of everyday life of the times. Portraits, works about tragedy and love, goddesses and strong, powerful women, and – most surprising of all to me – the works of William Morris of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement.
So much colour and romance, so many powerful stories. For a small group of artists working (as many do) in relative poverty and obscurity, the Pre-Raphaelites produced work that packed a solid artistic and cultural punch.
It reminded me that stories aren’t always told in words alone. Colour, shapes, images, rhythm, music – these are all ways to tell stories.
If you’ve seen the exhibition in Canberra, or been lucky enough to see the works at the Tate or elsewhere, let me know in the comments below.
What a glorious book this is.
Published in 2014, this beautiful, engrossing novel by American author Sue Monk Kidd (author of the best selling ‘Secret Life of Bees’) tells the story of the Grimke sisters. Sarah and Angelina were born into South Carolina’s ‘aristocracy’ – the slave owning, wealthy, pious and cultured families of Charleston in the early 1800’s. Yes, before the Civil War. But not, as I learnt from this book, before some people in both Northern and Southern states began speaking out against the evils of slavery.
I also learned that the Grimke sisters were among the most reviled women in America during their long campaign for abolition – and also among the earliest feminists in that country. They campaigned, not just for the abolition of slavery, but against racism in all its forms, and also for the right of women to have a voice and a vocation.
Why had I not heard of them before now? I felt better on learning that the author herself – Southern raised and living in Charleston – had also not known about them until she went to an exhibition commemorating historical women of note. There, she read about Sarah and Angelina and a little seed of an idea she’d had for a novel (‘I want to write about sisters’) grew to encompass their extraordinary story.
Another woman’s story is told alongside the sisters’. Monk Kidd learned that Sarah had been ‘given’ a slave named Hetty, a girl of the same age as herself – for her eleventh birthday. The real Hetty’s life was not a long one- she died young- but in the novel, she becomes the girl called ‘Handful’ by her mother Charlotte, also a slave. Handful and Sarah grow up together across a seemingly insurmountable divide – the free and the enslaved. The two women’s stories weave around each other throughout the book, with chapters alternating between the voices of Sarah and Handful.
I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which gave me the added pleasure of hearing it narrated by two different women – one with the cultured Charleston accents of Sarah, and the other the ‘slave voice’ of Handful.
This book did for me what good historical fiction should do. It made me wonder, imagine – and seek out more information on the real Grimke sisters, their lives and the society in which they lived and tried to change. Monk Kidd does not shy away from the brutal realities of the laws and practices of slavery as they were then, nor does she romanticise the relationship between Sarah and Handful. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the book is ultimately about hope.
Here’s a quote from the novel which absolutely sums up how I feel about historical fiction and, really,
history in general:
If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you came from.
This is Handful’s mother Charlotte speaking to her daughter as she relates the stories of ‘Granny Mama’, her African grandmother, about their history and culture before enslavement.
If you are looking for a novel to inform, inspire, educate and entrance, I’d suggest ‘The Invention of Wings’.