Immersing yourself in your story world

Do you write fiction? If so, you’ll know how important it is to understand the world your characters live in. This might be the same world that we live in today, or it might not be. Even if your story takes place in modern day Britain it’s likely that your characters belong to a specific cultural grouping, and have tastes which differ from other peoples. For example, you’ll need to know where they grew up, what they like/dislike, what makes them tick and what kinds of clothes they wear. So, how do you go about finding all of this out? Do you sit and make a list of their traits? Do you draw (or paint) their portrait? Or maybe you see a photograph of someone and build up your characters from there.

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However you go about it, it’s important to get the details right. Without them, a character not only won’t make sense, but, worse, they won’t feel real to the reader. That’s not to say that a character shouldn’t have quirks, which at first glance may look like inconsistent character traits, because they should. Characters with inner contradictions, with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides to them are much truer to life—more three dimensional—than a character who is one-sided.

But how do you really get into the mind set of your characters? And do you do this only for your main character, or for all of your characters?

For my novel, The Forest King’s Daughter, I immersed myself in the world my characters lived in. As this was 19th century rural Sweden, this was not exactly easy to do. I listened to Swedish folk music (or folkmusik) to set the scene for my characters, looked at old clothes both online and in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, viewed paintings of rural Sweden done by Carl Larsson in the National Art Library and learned some Swedish cooking and baking in order to surround myself with the sights, smells, sounds and tastes that my characters would have known. It was great fun, and tasty too. 🙂

Most of all, it allowed me to see the world as my characters would have done, and this helped me to build a better picture of them, which grew and changed over time.

Here’s a photo of some Swedish peasants wearing traditional folk dress from Dalarna. I just love the colourful aprons the women wore.

By Louise Hagberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Louise Hagberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And a few of my Scandinavian cookbooks, plus my lovely straw reindeer I purchased at the Swedish Christmas market here in London a couple of years back.

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Here’s a video of a musical duo playing on traditional Swedish nyckelharpas at Skansen on Easter, from YouTube. Listening to songs such as these helped me to transport myself to the Swedish countryside, and later to the Gothenburg dockside where emigrants prepared to depart for America. Many folk singers and musicians helped to entertain the departing emigrants to keep their minds off the perilous journey which lay ahead.

So, how about you? What kinds of things have you done to better understand your characters? I’d love to hear about them so please leave a comment below.

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Libraries

Do you visit a library regularly? I do. I’m lucky in that I have a fantastic library just ten minutes’ walk from where I live.  In fact, after having visited numerous libraries throughout London while researching The Forest King’s Daughter, I’m convinced that my library is the best.

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Islington Central Library

I visit every week–sometimes twice a week–to pick up books, music, dvds and also to print when my printer refuses to be of any use. As a writer I find the resources my local library provides to be invaluable. Not only can I search their online catalogue and reserve items (for free!) but I can also use the space provided by the library as a free study/writing space—no overpriced lattes required (however, if they began offering them I wouldn’t object 🙂 ).

I’ve used their materials to help me research stories as well as to assist me when doing practical things like attempting to fix the bathroom sink and applying for graduate school, as well as for not so practical things, like trying to bake a special cake.

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Of course, a lot of this information can now be found online, but I like the idea of going somewhere to discover, to explore, because sometimes sitting at your computer can get a little dull.

Recently I’ve taken out several books on Native American history and culture as part of my research for my next novel. The fact that I can get the books for free allows me to sample them in a way I couldn’t afford to if I had to pay for them all.  It means I can try out books before purchasing them, if indeed I decide purchasing them is necessary. I can also take out music which is related to the subject I’m writing about, painting and photography books, all of which help me to create and build the world I aim to depict, to immerse myself in the story.

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The library also allows me to dabble in other subjects I might not be able to afford to otherwise, like poetry. Recently I’ve been exploring the work of Seamus Heaney and Benjamin Zephaniah, amongst others. And when someone recommends a book, I can try it out before buying. The fact that there are so many free books available at the library gives me opportunities I would not otherwise have as I can’t afford to buy books every month, and books bring me such a lot of enjoyment. 🙂

Some people can afford to do some ‘retail therapy’ when they’ve had a bad day. I go for the ‘library therapy’ option. Bad day? Go take out a new novel, or how about a dvd to take your mind off it? Okay, I know a lot of people have everything at their fingertips through their computers now, but you still have to pay for films that you watch online, and music you download from iTunes, but at the library it’s free! And guess what, they also loan free e-books! So you don’t even have to visit to enjoy what they have to offer.

But I still like to, because I get tired of everything happening through my computer screen, a phone or some other electronic device.  Sometimes it’s just nice to go where there are books, and people. You know, the kind with arms and legs who walk places?

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How about you? Do you use a library regularly? If so, what is your experience of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below.

Until next time!

Books about Writing

What is your favourite book about the writing craft? Over the years I’ve built up a small library of books about writing novels, reading as a writer and, of course, grammar and punctuation. Which one is my favourite? Well, that depends on what I’m looking for.

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When I’m having trouble with a piece I like to turn to Stephen King’s On Writing for inspiration and tips on how to dig myself out of the mire. His easy going style and sense of humour about life (and writing) nearly always makes me feel better. On the other hand, his expectations of what makes a good writer can, at times, feel rather daunting to a beginner. For example, he says that when he begins a book he writes every day, and he finished one of his books in a week.

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I think he is right that we should try to work on our stories every day, if we can, or at least as often as possible. Writers should be driven by their writing just as painters are by painting or athletes are by playing sports. If you’re not then there is no point in being in this writing game. But I don’t agree that fast writing is always the best writing, or something that everyone can do. If you can be prolific without losing quality then you’re incredibly lucky, but not everyone can. Writers have to find their own way into their stories, fast or slow, and keep going with them. If writing every morning for two hours gets you there, that’s great. It’s equally wonderful if writing all day Saturday gets you to where you want to be with your story. As for myself, I tend to buy into the saying ‘slow and steady wins the race’. 🙂

But there is such good advice in here that you’d be hard pressed not to find space for it on your bookshelf. He covers everything from how to survive as a writer to creating memorable characters, strong plots and effective revision. One of my favourite parts is the book list he has at the back of the book. How many of these titles have you read?

The first book I ever bought about writing is Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Hemingway has always been one of my favourite writers because of his brevity and tightly knit prose. This book is a collection of quotes from his stories and letters about the craft, edited by Larry W. Phillips, and brought out in the 1980s, long after Hemingway’s death. Here’s one of my favourites:

“I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” To L.H. Brague, Jr., 1959 Selected Letters, p. 893 (page 18)

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He also talks about the importance of writing early in the morning before anything else can distract you and of not talking about what you’re writing so that you remain interested in it, advice I’ve attempted to follow but not always succeeded in.

Another great book about writing is called Reading Like A Writer by the aptly named Francine Prose. In this book she talks about the importance of reading carefully and slowly so that we fully understand what a writer is doing. She talks about courses she’s taught at college where students would speed read to the extent they didn’t actually know what the writer said, let alone how they got there. If we are to be good writers the first step is to be good readers. It is only by close reading that we are able to deconstruct character, plot and storyline to learn how it’s done.

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Of course, there are so many good books out there about writing. Which ones have you found useful for your own writing practice? And are you a fast writer, or a slow one? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below.

Glad påsk, or Happy Easter from Sweden

It was four years ago this Easter that I visited Sweden and met some of my relatives there. Sweden is a beautiful country, both the urban areas as well as the rural ones. The connections I made during this trip inspired me to write my novel, The Forest King’s Daughter. If you’ve read it you may even ‘recognise’ a few of these places 😉

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Stockholm sunset

Degerfors sunset

Degerfors sunset

We flew into Stockholm first, where we spent a couple of days before taking the train onto Värmland, a province to the west of Stockholm. We got off the train at Degerfors, where my cousin and his wife live. He is the grandson of my great, great grandmother’s youngest sister.

They were kind enough to show us the place where our grandmothers had lived, the old church in Åtorp which they would have attended, and the cemetery where our relatives are buried.

We also visited their farm, Daldenas, a working strawberry farm up until the last generation. He showed me how they kept meat cool in the days before refrigeration, where they chopped wood, and the old strawberry fields. He also described to me what it had been like here when he was a boy.

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Daldenas

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Strawberry fields

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chopped wood

When they showed us the barn, there was a very large, very old photograph on the wall of a man with long-ish hair looking out at us. They said they didn’t know who it was, but thought it might be our grandmothers’ father. I recognised the photo immediately as it was the same one which had been discovered in my grandfather’s house in America, after he passed away. The date on the back was from the mid 1800’s. Somehow it had survived all these years in the back of a barn, just as my grandfather’s copy had survived several moves all over the United States.

We went to visit Högtorp, the croft our grandmothers grew up in. Here I am posing in front of it.

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The croft— torp in Swedish, for those who lived there were called torpare meaning a small scale tenant farmer —was deep in the woods above the small village of Åtorp. The road was unpaved so we had to walk. It took us about half an hour to get up the hill walking at a good speed. The woods to either side were deeply thicketed. My grandmother would have had to take this road each day to school, and then later to church. She would have walked her younger siblings down the road to ensure their safety from wild animals. During that period of history wolves were rampant in Sweden.

Later I would read The Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lagerlof—a Värmland writer—who tells in one scene of a young woman being dragged from her carriage by a pack of wolves as she rides through the woods at night.

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When my grandmother lived here the forest would have been felled for farmland. There was a large yard which once would have been used to grow crops. The trees nearby were short, their height a marker of the time which has passed since this torp was occupied.

Across the yard, and visible from the front door of the house, was the wooden barn where the family would have kept livestock, although they were poor and so would not have had much. Certainly they would have had a cow for milk who would have remained in the barn, especially during the winter.

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The church in Åtorp was beautiful. It was wooden, done in an old Norwegian style. It was quite a ways from where they lived. Although Sweden is no longer a practising religious country, it used to be controlled by the church, especially the rural areas.  Ironically, it was because of the tests the church imposed and the catechism lessons that Sweden was one of the most literate countries in Europe in the 19th century.

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On Easter Sunday we looked at old postcards which had been exchanged between our grandmothers many decades ago. Here’s one of the photos they had, which was sent from Minnesota. We think it might be my great, great grandmother sitting in the chair.

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Have you ever taken a trip which has inspired you to write a story? What are the themes which recur in your own writing? I’d love to hear about them so please leave a comment below.