I am just back from holiday in Paxos. Needless to say, it was bliss, despite the Paxiots’ claim they were experiencing bad weather. A few days of high cloud and an overnight thunderstorm did not bother us Brits. Indeed, it was probably a good thing, giving us a gentler introduction to the heat and burning sun to come.
Of course everyone loves a holiday, but while away I began to reflect on the particular importance to the writer of new experiences. I may never write a story set on a Greek island but each morning, while sitting by the low wall of the terrace outside our favourite bar, and looking at the sea which lapped below me, I absorbed the sights, smells, sounds and emotions of the moment, locking them away for future use. I always pack a notebook when going away, but I never remembered to take it out with me; it returned to the UK in my suitcase, completely empty. I did have a camera, and I am lucky to have a good visual memory which is handy in my other creative outlet, art, but in writing this I am relying entirely on those imprinted memories.
The transparent water I gazed down into every morning was that implausible pale jade green. Every detail of the sea floor beneath - the rocks and sea urchins - could clearly be seen. A few small fish slid through the water, darting back and forth aimlessly, in apparently random patterns. That was until Spiros, the bar owner, flung off-cuts of bread from the preparation of our breakfast into the water. Almost instantaneously a mob of fish would appear, the small fry scattering to chase crumbs, as the big bullies zeroed in on the chunkier crusts. The limpid water was churned into a light fractured turmoil, by the roiling, wrestling-match of silver bodies.
But writers need to absorb and convey far more than a lovely scene. We have to go where our stories take us - a suburban middle-class street in home-counties England or a depressed high-rise estate in Glasgow, for example - locations far removed from the romance and heady beauty of Paxos. Indeed, many very good novels devote little space to descriptions of the landscape in which the action takes place, and they are none the worse for that.
More important than the setting, the main job of the fiction writers is to bring to life the players who inhabit those settings and who act out the stories dreamt up. To make them believable we must be observant of the people around us in “real life”. I’m not just talking about physical appearance - I mean what they wear, their body language, facial expressions, patterns of speech. All of these give clues to character and to emotional state and, if we get it right, can be used in a “show don’t tell” kind of way, to convey the emotions and challenges our protagonists are facing. (Which brings me back to the famously grumpy Spiros.... but his is another story , I suspect. Maybe a whole novel!)
But even if we do not have first-hand experience of everything and everyone we write about, there are excellent films and TV dramas to draw inspiration from.
Then, if all else fails, there’s imagination.
More about Gilli on he Blog