Show Don’t Tell

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I spent last week back in England as a witness in a dispute over a right of way to the property I used to live in some thirty years ago. Given a choice between having a tooth pulled out and appearing as a witness I think, in future, I would opt for the visit to the dentist.

I had recently read “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Pulgisi  in an attempt to cure myself of the habit of infecting my writing with bland adjectives – of telling “he was angry”, rather than showing. So this experience provided me with an opportunity to observe and watch for cues – what poker players call “tells”, as to how each witness was feeling, all set within  the context of the courtroom.

The following are some of the notes I made on these lines during the proceedings. But first a brief description of the courtroom to give you some context.

Square room, bland cream and grey décor; wooden chairs set out with an aisle between them – protagonists  to the left, antagonists to the right. As we trooped into the courtroom, the court usher bent forward and quietly asked each of us “Appellant or Objector? Take your seat on the right/left.” I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” – “Crucifixion, one cross each, on the right.”

One thing that could not be ignored in the room was the dais with the long bench behind which the judge sat in solitary splendour. Raised up above where we minions were seated it said, unequivocally to us – control, power, authority, I’m in charge.

Okay so on to the witnesses. I’ve given just three examples from my notes. They all relate to witnesses for the protagonists whom the counsel for the antagonists was cross-examining.

Witness One

Male, early fifties, the only male witness wearing a suit and tie. Took the oath in a steady, clear voice. Chose to stand rather than sit to give evidence; very upright, shoulders back. Listening to counsel’s questions he cocked his head slightly to one side, then straightened up again. Long, long pauses between question and his response.

My thoughts: calm, unruffled by situation. Did the “head cock” mean he was listening carefully? Perhaps he is slightly deaf? Did long pauses before responding mean he was choosing his words carefully; an unwillingness to answer; concocting a porky?

Witness Two

Female; early sixties; very chic. Strode to the witness stand; shoes squeaked on lino floor. Hands trembled a little as she held the paper on which the oath was printed; her voice quavered over a few words. Gave evidence standing up.  Voice steadied as she gave her testimony. When challenged hard by counsel a faint pink flush spread up her neck, voice trembled again. Played with a necklace she was wearing as she spoke.

My thoughts: nervous to start with but steadied herself. However, perhaps she was shivering and a bit cold? The necklace twisting – sign of nerves or fidgety and a tad impatient? The flush and wobbly voice – was she flustered; getting angry; embarrassed?

Witness Three

Female; late forties; smart/casual. Took a couple of visible deep breaths before reading oath. Gave evidence seated. Only witness to check, when asked, that the written statement previously provided was hers and that all the pages were present when given to her. When dealing with challenges by counsel  her voice dropped a tone and a Yorkshire brogue became more apparent. Sounded abrupt,  a little brusque but very definite about her evidence. Made good eye contact with judge rather than counsel when giving answers. Gestured with hands quite a bit.

My Thoughts: No-nonsense person. Meticulous? Confident?  Hostile towards counsel? Used the time to look through her written statement as a means of steadying herself?

So, as a writer what did I learn from all this?

  1. It reinforced something I’ve always known – that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. That is, to show emotions through body language we need to have a cluster of cues rather than just one and context is everything.
  2. It is possible to be sneaky and use a character’s body language to mask or mislead. I learned afterwards for example that Witness Two was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease which caused her hands/voice to tremble.
  3. The observation and interpretation of body language as an indicator of emotions is highly subjective.Would readers have the same interpretation?
  4. I would hate to be called for jury service!

 

So tell me, what would you have made of the three examples above?

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Where to go in search of a New Idea?

Where do ideas for stories come from? Probably a stupid question for a writer to ask but I plead insanity. I suppose the answer is everywhere-imagination, experience, observation, music, books, films and the eternal question”what if?”

As I put the finishing touches to a collection of spooky short stories (to be launched on the world ere long) I began to notice how many of these factors had crept in sometimes almost uninvited.

There are two local legends that form the basis of “The Siren” and “The Shoemaker”. Snippets from newspapers added to the former and gave me the plot for “No Ordinary Cat”.

Places where I have lived or visited in the UK and in France have provided the settings, and imagination allowed me to demolish a house here and there and move a church up a hill.

My own life experiences and people I have met snuck into “Toussaint” and “Sukie”. A recent experience of being blocked as a writer – not able to string two…er…two…um…thingys, you know, words, like, together – gave me the theme for “The Nonesuch Club” as did the words of the song ‘Hotel California’.

I’ve played Frankenstein and used a few traits or characteristics of people I know or have met to populate the stories with my very own monsters. No! Really, I didn’t mean that everyone I know/have met is a monster…well not all of them perhaps.

Of all the stories in the collection the hardest to write was “Boy with Harmonica”. That was the one that blocked me. Whilst the story is set in a village almost on my doorstep which I’ve come to know well (the village not the doorstep…well that too I suppose) I could not create the characters – a small band of Maquis (French resistance fighters during WWII) and a troop of Germans.The story was there but the characters were hiding in the shadows. So I read first-hand accounts of the German Occupation of this part of France; I walked the woods around the village where I wanted the story to unfold and criss-crossed the village streets and alleyways until I was sure I’d get arrested for loitering with intent. But they came, those characters, they slipped out of the shadows and onto the page. It was the hardest story of the collection to write yet, in spite of that (or perhaps because of it) it is one of my favourites.

Add to all these factors a large dollop of my weird and just occasionally wonderful imagination and a bunch of stories are born.

Simple eh?

Chips With Everything

Today it’s time for the tale of Tom Moman who lived in the early part of the nineteenth century in East Yorkshire. He was a man whose wits were found to be wanting – a chucklehead or noddycock if you want the vernacular. Indeed for some time even up to the last century should anyone do or say something foolish, he might well have been called a “Tom Moman” in derision:
“Eeh tha big lummox, tha’s a reet Tom Moman”.

Be that as it may, Tom presents something of a paradox; on the one hand he is derided as a half-wit and on the other, the tricks he got up to show a great deal of native wit and shrewdness. Take for example the story of the great potato pie.

For those of you lacking an agricultural education a potato pie was a method of storing potatoes over winter. You dug them all up and lay them on a bed of straw in the field and then covered them thickly with more straw and finished the pie of with a “crust” of well-slapped down earth.

Now in a certain Holderness village there lived a farmer who was more than careful with his “brass” – he was downright mean and miserly. He was a tough old bugger and his one pleasure in life (that we know of) was driving a particularly hard bargain. One autumn, after a productive potato harvest he made his “pie” in a small field a little away from the farm at the other end of the village.

On a dark autumn night, Tom, who did odd jobs to earn a penny or two, came to Miserly Farmer’s door with a heavy sack of potatoes that he had paid for from his earnings. Miserly Farmer, knowing of Tom’s reputed lack of wits, took great delight in bantering and browbeating him until he accepted sixpence for the sack of spuds. Delighted with the bargain Miserly Farmer asked Tom to bring more sacks and he would purchase them at the same measly price of sixpence.

Every few nights for a month or so, Tom would shuffle up to Miserly Farmer’s door, bent double under the weight of a sack of potatoes. Every few nights Tom would pocket his sixpence and Miserly Farmer would chuckle and congratulate himself at having beaten down the half-wit.

Later that winter, Miserly Farmer wanted to open his “Pie” and move some of the potatoes down to his barn. Seeing Tom lollygagging around the village he asked him to help him in this task. Tom agreed. The next morning, Miserly Farmer waited for Tom to show up but he never did. Fuming, he plodded off to the potato field to move the potatoes himself. When he got there, he found the pie had been opened up and his spuds nicked.

Tom had his revenge – all these past weeks he had been selling Miserly Farmer his own spuds and pocketing the sixpences.

Personally I think his reputation for half-wittedness undeserved. Tom merely reflects the old Yorkshire saying:
‘Ear all, see all, say nowt; Eyt all, sup all, pay nowt; And if ivver tha does owt fer nowt – Allus do it fer thissen.

Email me if you need a translation!

Litfic, Popfic and All That Jazz

By accident, I entered the murky world of literary debate over the weekend, becoming entangled in a discussion about the difference between literary and popular fiction – henceforth to be known as litfic and popfic.

Now I’ve always thought litfic to be just another genre of a sesquipedalian nature, centred on the human condition (whatever that is…a worldwide outbreak of dandruff?)with characters who are unlikely to live happily ever after, if they survive at all.

Of course I’m dispensing both igorance and prejudice in roughtly equal amounts here but I am genuinely intrigued by this concept of litfic.

Who decides what is litfic? The Writers and Artists Year Book reveals that there are agents and publishers who only…shock, horror…deal with literary works. So, is The Life of Pi litfic or popfic? What about the Kite Runner or Cloud Atlas? Do unfamiliar situations and characters a litfic make? Some in this weekend discussion held that litfic doesn’t have a strong plot and hence meanders aimlessly and bores the reader.

Are the classics litfic? If Jane Eyre were to be updated – young girl falls for married man and wanna-be bigamist; takes off for a gap year doing voluntary work with disadvantaged Northern kids, discovers her true heart through a slightly spooky moment and scampers back to now-widowed and redeemed man. Would this be litfic or chiclit. It’s all beginning to sound like varieties of chewing gum isn’t it?

Those who bat for litfic say that the genre is transformative – the reader is somehow changed through the experience of reading the book. Yet doesn’t popfic leave the reader happy, uplifted, satisfied?

I’m confused.

Oh for goodness sake does it matter? Well I suppose if you set out to be a litfic author maybe it does when you see the sales figures of some of the popfic authors. Then again I’m reminded of the Somerset Maugham short story – The Creative Impulse – in which for various reasons, Mrs Albert Forrester – litfic dame par excellence – decides to change genre and…well read it for yourself.

Isn’t the purpose of literature or even art as a whole to provide the reader, viewer, listener with an “experience” be it transitory or transformative,pleasurable or painful, satisfying or ambivalent, uplifting or depressing, sesquipedalian or terse (that’s just so you don’t have to look it up). I could go on but it’s time to leave the stage and go back to writing non-fic.

Wrestling with the Heroine

So far, so good. The Easter weekend actually felt spring-like at moments but I wish they wouldn’t fiddle with the clocks – it upsets my natural sleeping pattern. However sleep has been disturbed of late as I wrestle with my leading lady.

If anyone has been paying attention, they will be aware that I’m writing (struggling with) a novel; a family saga in three parts, starting in France, moving to England and ending in both. It covers the century 1820 – 1920…ish. This is the longest piece of writing I’ve contrived ever and to some extent I approach it pretty much like my life…what will be, will be. But actually what is, is that I’ve realised I don’t like my heroine. Even taking into account 19th century French culture and restrictions, she’s a wimp, a wuss, a mademoiselle sans gumption. Sacre bleu, how can this be?

She started off as a personable young lady living a sheltered life in difficult circumstances. At one time I thought her a little too feisty for the period so I toned her down. Result…I don’t actually like her any more. In fact she’s so feeble she’d struggle to take the skin off a rice pudding. I don’t feel like rescuing her from her grasping Uncle who may well (if I have my way) lock her up in a nunnery.

The truth is I infinitely prefer her ambitious, ruthless uncle and her rakish, philandering cousin. They are far more real to me. I confess I talk to them, just now and again, nothing serious you understand.

But what does that say about me? Is it proof of some deep psychological misalignment? Wish fulfilment?Perhaps I do need to get out more. But what is to the point, is what on earth am I going to do with Mlle Prissy. From where I sit, the nunnery looks enticing but then who is going to star in the next two books? Somehow I have to redeem her. Any ideas?

Books on Botox…The Enhanced E-book?

During a period of prolonged www fossicking I came across the latest thing in e-books – enhanced e-books. Well I say latest but I don’t get out much so it could be old hat to some of you. But I’ve only just digested ebooks so what is this enhanced version?

Now just to prove I’m no Luddite here are a few snippets I’ve garnered.

Audio – if you want to quote an extract of a speech say by Winston Churchill or Abe Lincoln why write it? Why not insert an audio extract, possibly of the great man himself if you can get the permissions.If your recipe book includes instructions for simmering your soup why not have the steady “gloop gloop” noise playing in the background to illustrate the process. If your hero is caught up in a great conflict why not have a bit of background bang and crash to help make the point?

Video – travel writers you could show people, places and events using short video clips to enhance your words and make them come alive. Instead of static book covers we could have a little vid clip – Orcs slobbering, masked killer about to strike, heaving bosoms as heroines meet heros…your imagination’s the limit.

Author Interaction – not enough just to write the ebook we all need to give additional interactive material – our reasearch, where we get ideas from, where and how we write. We could even share our notes, plot lines and characterisations. Talking of characters…

Hyperlinks – internal hyperlinks inserted say for a list of characters so readers can tag along with them or find them quickly in any part of the book. External links too can take the reader to other sites, resources, people or places.

Then, one of my favourites – tables. When I wrote Time for Your Life it was replete with tables that the lovely Steve at http://www.kindlemybook.co.uk had to convert for me to make them more Kindle friendly. But no more…embedded pdfs, that’s the way to go so I now can have tables, graphs, graphics of whatever sort for my ebook.

All of which creates a multi-media, multi-sensory reading experience.
Does it mean writers will need to add other techie type skills to their profile?
Or will books become collaborative efforts with people with different skill sets sitting round a table to produce an enhanced ebook?
If we have an ebook can we still be said to be reading? Yes, but not as we know it, Jim.

I guess it’s a bit like cosmetic surgery – it all depends on how judiciously we use these enhanced features, which by the way, only Apple and B&N readers support.

Whatever will happen to curling up quietly with a good book?
The runes are there to be read or multi-media’d.

Character Collecting

I re-read yesterday’s blog about Moaning Minnie and her Groundhog Day and was hit by one of those lightbulb moments of self-awareness…I am a Character Collector. Instead of listening empathically to Moaning Minnie I “collected ” her as a possible character for a future piece of work. I do this a lot. I used my mum as the main character in a short story about a wheelchair; my sister in another one about two very different sisters wanting to buy the same house; a couple of friends in another…oh you get the picture.

I have confessed in earlier blogs to being an inveterate earriwigger and I have little notebooks stashed with words and phrases that catch my attention. However, they are also full of “characters” based on people I know, I’ve worked with, I met in the laundrette, wherever. I categorise them unmercifully according to their potential; for example hero/heroine; baddie; psycho; mother-in-laws; old gossip etc etc. There’s nothing like a good bit of stereotyping and categorising to make you feel better (superior).

One of my newest categories (now I’m single again) I call “amorous losers” – I mean how else would you categorise someone whose chat up line is “I’ve not had it off for 5 years, how about you?” and he wasn’t talking about his manky sweater. Honest, this is true. Then there was a first date I went on where Romeo took me to his local pub, sat me in a corner, bought me a glass of orange juice and disappeared into another bar with his mates to watch the Grand Prick…sorry I mean the Grand Prix of course.

I’m sure most writers do something like this…please tell me they do… but what I’d really like to know is what do you do if someone recognises themselves…get a good lawyer?

Moaning Minnie and her Groundhog Day

I’ve had a really weird day and although I’m not sure what surreal means and I’m too lazy to look it up – I think I would describe it as surreal.

Completely by chance one of the participants in a workshop I was running was a lady who went to the same school as I, who was in the same class and whom I have cause to remember in an unfond way as a right Moaning Minnie. How comforting to know that in a changing world some things always stay the same…plus ca change and all that.

Social niceties scarcely observed she launched into a “do you remember…” monologue where she recited in glorious technicolour detail all the perceived hurts done to her in the past. She remembered every incident right back into her childhood. I mean how much energy and effort does it take to keep all that alive in your mind, fresh and unsullied by an iota of fact?

She presented each hurt in such a tone of resentment and anger; she spoke in terms of “should have”, “ought not to have” and “if only I’d…” In essence she was inviting me to waltz with her and look at what “has been done to me”.

She didn’t mince her words about the part I played in causing her early emotional trauma because I didn’t sit next to her in Miss Malham’s class and she felt soooooooo rejected. Then I realised what a thoroughly bad person I am. All the while she was talking at me I set the day job aside. Instead of being the empathic coach I’m supposed to be, I started thinking what a great Dickensian-type character she’d make for a story or in a novel. But then I realised as I went over some of her most memorable whinges that it just wouldn’t work. Readers wouldn’t believe in her and for once truth really would be stranger than fiction.

It was ugly yet strangely fascinating. There she is, frozen in time and in memories that prevent her from living in the here and now. Yet if there is one thing I’ve learned from my own life changes over the past few years, it’s that, like it or not, life goes on with or without you. In some awe I recognised that Moaning Minnie had created her very own Groundhog Day.

Hearing Voices

One of my favourite pastimes is earriwigging – listening undetected to other folks’ conversations. I’m not a snooper, really I’m not. It’s just that whenever I’m travelling, it’s almost impossible to ignore the conversations going on around me, especially the mobile phone conversations. Some of what I hear is fairly inarticulate:
“like what? Well…you know…ugh, that’s so gross.”
Other snippets are quite intriguing like this one between two girls on a train:
“Yeah, he came to the pet shop. I nearly died when he walked in. Then he said he liked my hamster.”
“Never heard it called that before. Did he buy it?”

Writing a blog has given me yet another opportunity to hear voices – from the writing. I’m a newbie when it comes to blogging and so one of the things that struck me as I started to read blogs was the diversity of voices – not so much in subject matter – I expected that – but in tone and attitude. I hear angry voices, challenging voices, positive and negative voices, hurt voices – all the tones and emotions you can think of. This is rich pickings for a wannabe writer.

The point of all this is that I need to hear voices. As I move from non-fiction writing to fiction, I find it tough to discard my own voice (warm, friendly, non-preachy with just un soupcon of irony when appropriate)and find suitable ones for my characters. Somehow, and I don’t know why it happens, my own voice will insist on breaking through. So just as I approach the most romantic scene where my hero (tall, handsome with aquiline nose, finely chiselled jaw) is determinedly yet sensitively getting round to dating my heroine (beautiful, feisty but vulnerable),instead of persuasive, seductive, beguiling words, the voice in my head butts in and my hero says “get your coat on love, you’ve pulled.”

Should I try another genre do you think?