Many years ago, I read an article about the joys and perils of writing groups. I can’t remember the name of the author, or where I saw the article, but it has stayed with me, because it illustrated its point using a story.
It goes something like this. A writers’ group met every week; each week they were given a theme to write about, then they brought their work for comment and critique to the next session. One week they were given the theme of ‘a chair’. They all wrote a story about a chair and read their work aloud at the next meeting. All but one of the participants wrote a story about a rocking chair on a porch: stories that were sentimental and twee. One person wrote about the electric chair, and the story was full of compassion and redemption. The other members of the group turned on the author and castigated him for writing about such a horrible topic, but it was the electric chair story that went on to be published, not the rocking chair stories.
This anecdote was told to warn people that writing groups can have their downsides, but to me it has two further messages for writers:
• Stick to your guns
• Be different
There are many writing competitions that ask for submissions on a theme. How do you avoid the twee and hackneyed (the rocking chair) and find the original and bold (the electric chair)?
Write then Discard
Firstly, write down everything that comes to mind when you think of the theme. Chuck away all your first ideas, as they will be the obvious connections and the ones that the majority of people will write about.
Keep on brainstorming, looking at the theme from different angles, asking questions, and turning the obvious on its head. Keep going until you’re out of ideas.
Quieten the Chatter
If you find it difficult to do this, it could be that your conscious mind (the bit that’s coming up with easy, obvious ideas) is holding sway and needs to be quietened down so your subconscious can come up with more tangential ideas. There are a few ways to let your subconscious come forward:
• Sleep. This technique was used by Milton to write Paradise Lost: he would awake in the middle of the night and dictate 30 or 40 lines of poetry to his wife and then go back to sleep again. If you value your marriage, I don’t recommend his technique, but you could set an alarm for 20 minutes in the afternoon and have a catnap. Start writing the moment you wake up, before the conscious mind has time to interfere.
• Meditation. This isn’t about thinking about nothing, but about quieting your mind so you can calmly watch your thoughts and let them go. Even simply sitting still and counting your breaths will help to numb the chatter.
• Doing stuff with a rhythm such as walking, swimming, cooking or sewing. These activities provide a space where your subconscious can do its thing and push original ideas to the front of your mind.
Go For It!
Once you’ve quietened your conscious, brainstorm as many ideas as you can, digging deeper into the theme until you find an angle that makes you stop and think, “Hey!” Explore that idea from different angles, playing with character, voice and setting, until you get a fizzy, excited feeling and the urge to start writing. That’s your story.
Once you’ve written the story, check that it still reflects the theme. Stories can go off in directions of their own sometimes. If you don’t think you’ve captured the theme adequately, simply send the story to an open competition and have another go at the theme.
Judges often comment that story entries are very dark, and that few humorous stories are entered in competitions. If you can write humour, your story will stand out from the pack. And if you can dig a story out of everyday situations, even better. It’s tempting to throw yourself at the big themes (cancer, miscarriage, death, war), but these get repeated time and again, so find the story in something ordinary and make it extraordinary.
How To Do It
Here’s an example of how I might tackle a short story on the theme of ‘death’.
My first thoughts would turn to the hackneyed and (dare I say it?) done to death: cancer, suicide, World War I. After that it might be widowhood, murder or euthanasia. Notice that these are all ‘big’ themes, and over-represented in competition entries. So digging a bit deeper, I might think about the people who deal with death every day: undertakers, morticians, florists, stone masons, and nurses. And does the death have to be of a person? What about the death of a pet? What about pet cemeteries or taxidermists? Could it be about the death of a language or a way of life?
How would humour work in a story about death? Again, try to avoid the obvious and the temptation to make it blackly humorous, and explore instead if there is a way to tell the story with gentle humour and compassion.
A unique slant on a given theme, told in a compelling and original way – that’s the ‘electric chair’ way of storytelling. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.
This month I’ve got an article out in Writers’ Forum magazine. It’s the first installment of a two-parter that looks at what resources are available to writers when they hit a block – whether that’s writer’s block or losing momentum in your writing.
To write the article, I contacted several published authors to ask if they’ve ever experienced a block in their writing, or a time when they felt their writing career had stalled, what they did about it, and what advice they could give to other writers who found themselves in a similar situation.
What astonished me was the number of writers who responded by saying they didn’t feel they could help because:
- They were struggling themselves
- They had no authority to offer advice
The second group was the one that flabbergasted me. Firstly because so many of the writers I contacted responded this way, and secondly because I’d contacted them because I considered they had absolute authority to comment: they were writers who have published lots of books, stories and poems; were bestselling authors; have won literary competitions; and teach writing.
It seems that as writers, however much we publish, however successful we appear to the outside world, we never quite feel as though we’ve ‘made it’. And I wondered if there's ever a point when we can look at what we’ve achieved and feel a sense of satisfaction, or will we always compare ourselves to other writers and wish we were better.
In one regard, this is depressing as it suggests we’re never contented with what we’ve achieved. On the other hand, if all writers experience this sense of ‘Don’t ask me, I’m not good enough’ then we’re suffering self-effacement along with all our literary heroes.
Reviewing the woes other writers confessed to me of crippling writer’s block, lack of time, lying to publishers and agents about how much work had been done on a new novel etc, I started to wonder if as writers this is ‘business as usual’? Is feeling stuck, unimaginative and sluggish the normal state of affairs for writers? And are those days when the words come flowing from the pen to be celebrated because they’re so rare?
Again, knowing that fellow writers are staring at the page with despair can be consoling, even if not encouraging. A sense of ‘we’re all in it together’ if you like. So if writing is so difficult and we never stop to acknowledge what we’ve achieved, why do we do it? Is it a form of addiction, or is it because of the rush we experience when a writing project suddenly falls into place?
And do we become writers, not because we have written, but because we have faced periods of not-writing and have persevered none the less?
I was looking through some old writing course notes the other day, and came across this advice: find the darkest place in your mind, and write about it. The advice continued: what's the darkest thing you can think of? Make it happen to your characters.
It set me wondering - what's the darkest thing I could think of, and is it wise to spend so much time dwelling on the dark side?
I'm currently writing the third Eden Grey mystery, and it starts with an almighty shocker of a first chapter. Rules of the game are if you start high octane, you have to maintain it - you can't slip into a gentle, cosy pace - so I needed a plot that would live up to the opening. I asked myself, "What's the darkest thing one person can do to another?" and I wrote a list. Then I found myself thinking, "If I take that and that, and combine them, I get something that's really dark."
Question is: should I?
In recent years there's been a trend in crime fiction towards ever more sadistic and violent crimes. Books that start in the murderer's mind and show you exactly how they're torturing the victim. Or that are in the victim's mind, and you experience the torture with them. I can't read this kind of material. It's too nasty and gratuitous, and I feel like a voyeur reading it. But could I write it? Probably.
When I'm writing, I find myself simultaneously caught up in the characters' heads, and at a remove from them. I can make terrible things happen to them, and be able to stand back from it all and consciously determine how to craft it. Graham Greene described this as 'a splinter of ice in the heart' - the writer's ability to take a tragedy and turn it into entertainment. Because however literary or artistic our writing is, on some level we're always aiming to entertain our readers, otherwise they'll put the book aside.
The splinter of ice in my heart enables me to write dispassionately about proper nasty stuff - child abuse and people smuggling and murder. And it's only later that I look at what I've written and wonder if maybe I need psychological help. The first time I met my agent, she said to me, "You know, if you writers just got yourselves good psychiatrists, you wouldn't have to write all this crime." Where's the fun in that?
So my challenge is to go as dark as I dare, but be careful not to fall into the trap of writing nasty scenes just for the sake of it. A scene that explores the dark side must have a point to it. In crime fiction, the darker the crime, the more there is at stake, and the more that's demanded of the hero. There's normally a resolution - the baddy gets caught and brought to justice - so the reader is relieved that no matter how much the dark side of human nature upsets the social order, there's always restitution. Society is stronger than evil.
Lurking with my dark side makes me confront what scares me most about human nature, but because this is fiction, it's a safe place for me and the reader. And unlike real life, I get to make it better - my protagonist Eden Grey will face evil and overcome it. The greater the evil she faces, the greater the relief for both me and reader that the thing we fear the most can - ultimately - be overcome.
George Orwell named nine cases in his essay on the ‘Golden Age of Murder’; six of them are poisonings. So what is it about poisoning that delivers such delicious horror to the writer and reader of crime fiction? For me, it’s the fact that the poisoner has to be close to the victim, and may even be a family member, and because poisoning subverts all our cultural beliefs about food. Food is meant to nourish and restore; we use the phrase ‘comfort food’ to show how food nurtures our mental as well as physical health. How creepy, how insidious then, to transform the substance that’s meant to sustain into something intended to kill.
Poisoning is the epitome of premeditation. It takes thought, time and cunning to devise a way to poison someone. The poisoner is cold-blooded indeed to make these preparations. Having administered the poison, the poisoner needs nerves of steel to watch their victim eat it, and then watch them suffering a long, painful and protracted death, even sometimes being called on to nurse their victim.
The Golden Age of Murder
When we think of poisoning, we tend to think first of the golden age of murder, and the cases that gripped the nation, and which still interest us today. Cases such as Madeleine Smith, the young woman from a well-to-do Scottish family, who was charged with killing her lover with arsenic-laced cocoa. She was tried under Scottish law, and found not proven – neither guilty nor not guilty.
Another sensational arsenic poisoning case was Mrs Maybrick, who unwisely soaked fly papers to extract the arsenic to make a face wash to brighten her complexion. Unfortunately when her husband died of arsenic poisoning, the finger was pointed at her, though later it was discovered that her husband was an arsenic eater, taking increasing doses of the stuff daily to improve his constitution.
Far from poisoning being a ‘woman’s crime’ (though it’s often spoken of that way), many of the infamous poisoners from the golden age were men: Seddon, who killed his lodger to get his hands on her gold; Armstrong, who administered poison to his nagging wife; and Crippen, who silenced his wife with hyoscine.
There are common elements to these cases that spark the imagination: the closeness of the poisoner to the victim, the initial incorrect diagnosis of gastritis or stomach flu, the exhumation and testing of the body, and the fact that arsenic remains in the body, a finger pointing to foul play. Add in the big characters of the time like the barrister Marshall Hall and pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, and a domestic drama is transformed into national obsession. To me as a crime writer, these highly emotional set-pieces are almost irresistible.
But is poisoning only for the golden age of murder? If you’re writing a contemporary crime novel, what does poisoning offer as a method of murder that you don’t get from shooting, stabbing or strangulation?
Firstly, you get more choice over the time of death. In poisoning, symptoms may take a while to appear. Though some, like cyanide, are instantaneous, some deadly poisons may take days before the victim realises something is wrong. For example, it takes up to five days before symptoms of paraquat poisoning occur, and several days after that before the victim dies. This gives the crime writer an opportunity to muddy the murder timeline and bring in a few red herrings, as it will be impossible to determine exactly when the poison was administered.
Poisoning also gives you, the writer, some choice over the symptoms and appearance of the corpse. You might want the symptoms to look like an illness such as a heart attack, to confuse all the characters except the savvy detective. Don’t forget that no one will test for a poison unless there is a suspicion to do so, and an idea of what to test for, so your fictional murderer might initially get away with it until the weight of evidence grows.
Alternatively, you might want dramatic, frightening or bizarre symptoms to raise the tension in the story. Your victim might be found with a blackened face (silver nitrate poisoning), yellowed skin (nicotine), or suffer pre-mortem smoking breath and faeces (phosphorous).
Picking the Perfect Poison
When I researched and wrote my novel Paternoster, I learned that it pays to decide on the poison early in the writing process, and check the symptoms, time line for reaction, and appearance of the victim, because it might just change the direction of the story.
Paternoster is set in Cheltenham. Initially, the plot concerned murders at an exclusive introduction agency, and the poison I wanted to use was mistletoe, partly because of the connection between mistletoe and kissing (yes, the working title was ‘Fatal Kiss’), but also because the trees in Cheltenham hang heavy with mistletoe and I wanted a uniquely Cheltenham brand of murder.
However, when I researched mistletoe, I was disappointed to find it wasn’t fatal (unless you scoff a ton of it and I couldn’t see the victim falling for that) so I had to find another poison. Off I went to my writers’ big book of poisons, and browsing through the pages, I came across a deadly poison, little known yet easily available, which was used traditionally in trial by ordeal. Thinking about this poison set me off on a different plot about secret societies in contemporary and Georgian Cheltenham.
I finished the first draft of a new novel at the weekend, and fought off the flat, empty feeling by taking myself out for lunch to celebrate. At the end of a book I always feel a bit depressed - I want to be back with the characters and in that wonderful state of discovering what's going to happen next in the story. Believe me, as the author, I'm the last one to know!
Anyway, I finished the first draft, and gave myself a pat on the back and a nice lunch, and the manuscript will be left fallow for a little while before I start the rewrite. Amazing what new ideas and insights come into play when it's been left alone for a while.
I think celebrating every milestone in writing is important: the first draft, completing a novel, sending off a short story, winning a competition. It's easy, as time goes on and the writing credits pile up, to take it all for granted, but one thing about writing is that it's uncertain. You never know definitely that you'll ever have anything published again. When I was a new writer, and sending work out was a Big Thing, I used to be so frightened of putting the manuscript in the post box that I pretty much hyperventilated. I used to hold the package in the slot, wish it luck on it's way (out loud, to the amusement of passers-by), and cross my fingers as I let it drop.
I don't hyperventilate when I post off work now (at least not as much) and I rarely wish my manuscript bon voyage or cross my fingers. But I do take time to acknowledge that there's another story on it's way; another story I've crafted and rewritten and stamped on and cursed at and rewritten again and again until I think it deserves an outing in the world. Sometimes it's just a moment when I think about the story and say to myself, 'Well done for finishing it.' Sometimes I have a little treat - a walk in a beautiful place, a poke round a junk shop, or a manicure.
Celebrating the conclusion of this latest first draft was a big deal for me, as a few months ago I thought the novel wouldn't get written at all. I normally take about a year to write a novel, end to end, but this one has been on the go for about eighteen months. Why? Because I caught flu five months in and was out of action for weeks, and have been pretty ropey since then. When I returned, eventually, to the manuscript I was part way through, I realised I didn't know my victim well enough, and I hadn't got a clue what made the murderer tick. It needed a complete overhaul: new scene outlines, new character sketches, a few red herrings to keep people guessing, and a subplot or two.
It was a while before I could face starting again, but I did, and the first draft was - eventually - finished. I learned a lot from having to start again, to rip up what I'd written and rethink the whole blessed book. And that's worth celebrating.
About a year ago, I heard an item on the Today programme talking about a phenomenon called ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Now call it synchronicity if you like, or simply put it down to my being aware of ASMR, but since then, there's been a lot more discussion of ASMR, what it is, and whether it helps the creative process.
For those of you who don't know, ASMR is a relaxing, tingling sensation in your scalp, that can spread down your neck and arms. Some people call it brain tingles. I like to think of it as human purring. If you've ever experienced ASMR, you'll know it feels delicious, and that it is set off by certain sounds or sensations:
People who experience ASMR may have different triggers, but there are enough common triggers to spawn a whole ASMR video industry. Search for ASMR on You Tube and, if you have ASMR, that's the rest of the afternoon gone for you. From crinkly bags to soft voices to binaural role play, there's an ASMR video to match your trigger.
Some people say that the deeply relaxing sensation of ASMR is great for tackling sleeplessness. Others claim that it might help the creative process, as the sensation is so relaxing it can overwhelm the critical, logical part of our brains (the bit that stifles creativity before it even hits the page) and make a space where creativity can flourish.
I'd love to know how many other creative people experience ASMR, and if they actively use it to encourage and promote their creativity. ASMR is likened to 'flow': that sense that you're beyond time and completely in the moment, and that whatever you're doing is happening effortlessly. I find that a routine helps me to get into a flow state with my writing, but there are days when churning out the words is, frankly, hard work. And I wonder if a few minutes of ASMR would help unblock my thoughts and get those words pouring onto the page again.
And then I think, why have I never come across this sensation described in writing? Is it because we all assume that we experience life identically? And if so, what else are we missing?
Sometimes when I tell people about writing Paternoster, they ask how I started to write it, and where the idea came from. And sometimes they ask frankly why I decided to write a crime story set in Cheltenham.
The answer's quite simply - someone asked me to. Or rather, challenged me to.
For a few years I wrote murder mysteries set in the Australian outback. And then I wrote a murder mystery set in England. A friend read the book and asked, "Why don't you ever have a detective?"
Because I don't know where to start with a 'proper' crime book with clues and detectives and red herrings and important things like that. But it got me thinking. Why not give it a try? And why not set it close to home, where it would easy to research locations.
So I did what I always do when I think I've had a bright idea, I set to with a big sheet of flip chart paper and some crayons, and brainstormed everything I could think of about Cheltenham and its history, and then I added in things that didn't happen in Cheltenham but they might have done, until I'd covered the paper.
When I sat back and looked at it, frankly it was all over the place. Ideas and images and snippets of half remembered bits of history all jumbled up together. Time for another cup of coffee and a new marker pen, and I drew lines round bits that might fit together, or that didn't fit together but it would be cool if they did.
I came up with potential plots and scenarios for several novels. But there was one that really grabbed me and a few ideas that I was excited to work with, so I picked those first, grabbed another sheet of flip chart paper and set to again.
At this stage I had no detective, no clue how the two strands of the novel fitted together - the bit in Georgian Cheltenham and the bit in the present - but I wanted to find out. I knew I wanted the novel to be dark and not pull its punches. Murder is murder, after all, and I didn't want to pretty that up. And I wanted male victims because there are too many women getting killed in fiction at the moment, and I wanted a detective who was a bit of a maverick, was brave and opinionated and a little bit damaged.
And I cracked open a new notebook (always have to have a new notebook for each new project - choosing exactly the right one can take hours) and started to write.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.