Dear Dr Darwin
You’ve talked elsewhere about finding the “white space between the facts” on which we can write, and I think I’ve found a time and place – the run-up to Waterloo – which gives me (just about) enough white space for fiction. But I’m finding it very hard to write anything on those spaces which is worth reading: every sentence and every scene comes out as an exercise in joining the dots, with boring prose to match. Nor is writing like this what I got into fiction for. I need to re-find the imaginative rigor and power which it’s so easy to find with a wholly made-up story, before I give up and buy a colouring-book instead.
Shackled of Quatre Bras.
What you’re trying to find is the “anarchic, gift-conjuring, un-knowing part” of the writer’s mind, as Rose Tremain puts it, and it’s not easy. Presumably you’ve decided your policy – your personal ‘rules’ for this project – about what you can change or invent, and what you must stick to. But that leaves a lot of stuff which you don’t dare let your free brain conjure with.
I suggest that you make a firm decision to grant your researched facts no more special status than you would the facts about your home town, say, or where you grew up. Then try all the ways you already know of growing a scene or a story out of those materials. Or try some of these. For all of them, forget there’s any such thing as “allowed” or “not allowed”; you can always tidy things up later, but for now let anarchy and conjuring rule!
Free-writing is the simplest way to move beyond the “knowing”. Write a suitable anchor phrase at the top of a notebook page: say, “We are in position”, “MacGregor is”, or “Everything is silent”. Then freewrite for at least fifteen minutes: don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t correct, don’t cross out. If new words stop coming, just write the anchor phrase over and over till they start floating up again. If you really can’t bear to use a notebook, turn off or cover up your monitor, or just close your eyes as you type. Read it through, and circle anything which resonates, even if it’s just a word. Somewhere in that dustheap will be diamonds worth developing.
Clustering is like a mind-map, but the connections are free-association, not logic. Write an anchor word in the middle of the page and circle it: perhaps an object in this bit of the story, or maybe an important character. Then follow free-associative chains outwards from it: allow in not just associations of material things and sense-data, but images and metaphors, phrases and quotations, rhymes and alliteration. Don’t be afraid to start a new leg if one really has dried up, or let a leg divide into two. Keep going as long as you can; it helps to have either small handwriting or a big paper. You can also try a rather more organised “senses-spider”, with one leg for each of the five senses.
Add a fictional character to the scene you’re working on: someone with a completely different needs, wants and agenda. If the main scene is about something earth-shaking, make their needs trivial but important to them, and vice versa.
Put the scene under pressure in another way: some large or small element which cuts across the direction the characters (and the history) think they’re going in, but needs to be coped with.
Change the setting of a scene to somewhere which the characters will have to engage with: preferably a setting you haven’t used before. Even if eventually you change it back, you’ll have discovered different dynamics to the characters’ interactions.
Give each character one new and unexpected characteristic. What does that do to the scene? Does it suggest some other scenes which might be effective, or a standalone short story? Write one.
Do more research: this sounds paradoxical, but very often it’s the weird, individual particularities that set the imagination alight again. It’s the generally-accepted, general ideas of people, things and events which are so deadly boring to work with (and to read, come to that). Roll around in the material culture, the scratch-and-sniff of your time.
Try writing in different voices. Soak in the actual writing of the period: letters, novels, plays, poetry, and get it under your skin by reading it aloud in the spirit that people sing in the shower: no one’s listening. Write one of your scenes from the point-of-view of a eight-year-old, or in the voice of Napoleon.
Write pastiche poetry or letters, perhaps as if by your characters. Take a long sentence from something you’ve read and swap in other words to see what you get. Do a cluster just for sounds: rhythm, rhyme and half-rhyme, alliteration, assonance.
Try writing the same section at different psychic distances: from a god’s (or general’s)-eye view of the battlefield, to the stream of one soldier’s consciousness. And if you don’t know what I mean by Psychic (or Narrative) Distance, click through to the post on This Itch of Writing.
Push yourself. Whenever you’re trying to imagine anything, it’s natural to stop as soon as your mind comes up with something suitable. But that will probably be the most ordinary name, phrase, food, nightmare, gown, setting or pub. Instead, try pushing on to think of a second and then a third option, and only then choosing between them. It feels like harder work, but it will be much more exciting for both you, and your reader.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.