Sunday, 13 September 2015

Reading, Thinking, Writing

Since I started writing my own fiction, especially since I joined a critiquing group, I've increasingly found myself reading stories with part of my mind in "reader" mode, part in "reviewer" mode. Reading other writer's work is a great way to help me understand how to write, giving me good and not-so-good examples of ways to tell a story, which I can use as I try to develop my own "writer's voice".

Elmore Leonard's "Be Cool" gave me a fantastic example of how to deal with a lively and violent action scene - get someone involved to describe it in a conversation! I'd already seen the film adaptation of "Get Shorty", the prequel to this story, so my head insisted on casting John Travolta as the character he'd played in the film.

Andy Weir's "The Martian", soon to be released as a film, was an example of how research can pay off. I really bought in to the character, a gifted engineer trapped on Mars after an accident, as he struggled to defy every mishap and disaster and just stay alive. I felt that the materials and machinery around the astronaut were just a little more advanced than today, which made it easy to imagine and accept. And the character was so realistic and plausible -  tough, bloody-minded, with a wicked sense of humour.

Spencer Dryden's "The Memory of Mermaids" is a total contrast. It's a lively, imaginative and really fast-paced modern-day fantasy, with gangsters, the FBI, sea monsters from the dawn of creation, treasure from the Spanish Main, research scientists and mermaids. I really enjoyed it and found it pretty endearing. It has enough "adult" moments to be erotica. I just wished Spencer hadn't been in such a hurry, as I wanted to get to know his characters better!

I recently really enjoyed reading "The Good Knight", by Sarah Woodbury. This is the first in a six-story series of "Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mysteries". The mystery acted as the pivot around which the story was told. I must admit that I didn't really care "who dunnit", but I really enjoyed the story. Sarah clearly knows her history, but gave me just enough to paint the scene, not deluge me with detail. The story is set in 12th century Wales, then still independent of England and run by various Kings and nobles. I found the characters interesting and engaging. They used modern-day dialogue, which worked for me. After all, they would have used equivalent phrases in 12th century Welsh or Danish. Not using "sort of" period language helped keep the pace, I felt. By "sort of" period language, I mean the style Ellis Peters used in her Brother Cadfael mysteries. What struck me most about Sarah's book was how details and incidents kept me firmly in the period. The first stone castles being built. Dublin being a settlement of Danish vikings. Justice down to the whims and moods of your local lord. Politics played for real, when being stabbed in the back meant exactly that.

But the story which made me think most about my own writing was Bram Stoker's "Dracula". According to wikipedia, it's an "epistolary", apparently compiled from the accounts of the various different characters. In that form, it seems very like a modern TV or film drama, where we jump from one character to another as the story progresses. Aside from giving the author a wide range of "voices" to help tell the story, it means Bram was able to play with something called "unreliable narrator", where the reader isn't quite sure what they're reading is completely accurate... I've not developed the confidence to use this myself yet, but I have adapted one of his ideas in a draft novella, including press reports about an incident.

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