I don’t know what colour the wallpaper is, or what flowers are growing in the garden. I only work out with an enormous effort what season it is, what the weather is doing, what day of the week it is. I’m not talking about my everyday life – well, not every day. If there is some telling detail – the smell of stale beer, chewing gum under the table, the sound of seagulls in hobnailed boots dancing on the roof – that will, for me, suffice for atmosphere. World building is not my thing. It took me three years to finish reading the Lord of the Rings – whole chapters of nothing but weather. Apparently that was something Tolkien and Lewis had in common – a passion for weather.
If you ask me which comes first for me, character or plot, I’d have to say neither – what comes first is story, people in a situation, in a relationship or network of relationships. Story is not plot. Plot has to be worked out once you know the story. You can tell the same story with different plots. And you can do the relationships with different characters.
If I’m trying to write something in a particular setting, or with particular characters, my mind is a blank until I can find a story that suits that setting or those characters. A Story – ancient, immortal, winding through human minds since there were such things. And it doesn’t boil down to boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets eaten by something from the outer darkness.
I go to story telling sessions, occasionally tell a story. You hear all sorts of stories – anecdotes, extended jokes, shaggy dog stories, folk tales, ghost stories, re-tellings of epics or ancient myths. You’ve usually got about ten minutes, max. So in terms of story length it’s a short-short. You’ve got to grab the audience and get them to listen, and follow what’s happening – they can’t turn back to check a detail. You have to set the scene very quickly – There was a king, and he had three sons; there was a woodcutter who was very poor, and couldn’t feed his children; three giraffes walk into a bar; I was staying in a small hotel on Dartmoor – there is no time to describe the wallpaper, unless it has a vital bearing on the story. You may repeat a phrase, to keep people following on; it will be a memorable phrase, and central to the story. But the story is the main thing.
And, rather unfortunately, that’s the way I tend to write. I often have to go back and put in descriptive detail afterwards. I often don’t even know in any detail what the characters look like. What my characters do, in spades, is talk. Sometimes there’s nothing but conversation for pages – which can get on people’s nerves, after all.
(I read somewhere that E. M. Forster once said, “The novel tells a story – oh dear, yes, I suppose it does.” He would have preferred to be freed from the necessity.)
A traditional story is timeless, the location is wherever the story is told, the characters are archetypes. The listener can project characteristics on to them; they themselves have only the minimum necessary for the story to work out. The writer of fiction takes Story and gives it a local habitation and a name. Some people do this brilliantly; every word they write pins the thing in time and space (which, if it’s contemporary, is fine if you write fast and have a publisher; if you’re trying to sell the thing five years later you have to keep changing the details – but I digress). The characters become individuals the reader would know if they met them – people with a back story, with idiosyncrasies – and of course wallpaper.
I can see the appeal of this. But is there not also an appeal in pure story – story that can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any time? Unless it is yellow, do we need to know the colour of the wallpaper?
Marion Pitman sells second-hand books on the internet and pretends it brings in a living. Her first short-story collection, Music in the Bone, came out from Alchemy Press in 2016, and her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. She mostly writes ghost stories, but also dabbles in science fiction, fantasy and westerns. She has no cats, and would like to live in Piccadilly, in a flat like Lord Peter Wimsey’s.
Marion’s story collection, Music in the Bone, is now available from Alchemy Press.