Thursday, 2 February 2012

Inspiration comes from strange places.

Henry Miller's To Do List!
This wonderful list, purportedly coming from Henry Miller, went viral on Facebook this week, mainly amongst writers and academics who could empathise with the list. Number 5 is my favourite and one I am trying to apply more often. You may remember in my last post I was talking about an inspirational meeting I had had with an agent and her editor. A combination of being frantically busy at work and ill health has meant it has taken until today to act on their thoughts. I have been mulling it over since I spoke to them but then yesterday I attended an excellent exhibition (if you are near Winchester please visit it) entitled 'This is my home now'. It is an oral history project about people who have sought refuge from conflict or persecution in their homeland. My colleague, Judith Heneghan, worked with many of the participants and has produced a book of their stories. There are some wonderful images in both the book and the exhibition but what really caught my eye was a short film by Alice Cady who had asked the participants to hold something that meant a lot to them from their past life. During the film you did not see their faces or hear them speak you just watched their hands fondling the object - there was a box, a book and a cross amongst other things. It was immensely powerful. But it was also a source of real inspiration for me. I suddenly realised that my young Afghan girl needed an object to hold on to whatever happened to her. This thought then triggered so many others and the mulling over became a need to write.

We are often told when editing that it might be an idea to chop out the first chapter as you are starting too soon and there is too much back story in it, interestingly, when I was talking to the agent they wanted me to start much sooner. They felt there was a real opportunity for even more tension consequently this morning I have found myself doing more research. This time on wooden boxes made of juniper for her object to hold on. But also what happens when you have an incomplete miscarriage that is not treated. Who says a writer's life is boring! I have to say I love the research side of writing but you do have to be careful not to do too much research and therefore avoid writing. I am pleased to say I have started the new beginning of the new chapter 1 and am delighted with it as I know where it is going and what is going to happen. Always a good feeling for a writer.

Research can make all the difference even if not all of it ends up on the page. The merest detail can lift a story right off the page. Research can add credibility to a story, nothing is more likely to switch a reader off than spotting inaccuracies. To me it smacks of laziness. Some of the information won't make any difference to the reader but it will to the writer. For example, this morning I needed to find a name for my girl's mother. She is called Saba and whilst looking at the names I came across Belqis, which means Queen of Saba. The reader is unlikely to ever know this but for me it was perfect. I will know it is there.

'...[so] now in this discovered space
let's fly to a pure solitude' where I can go off to write (thank you Neruda for your words)

You may also be interested in this blog post by Jody Hedlund who is also writing on research today.

The music today is called Hey Child and it is for Saba


  1. Brilliant post, Ness, and you're right, research is a wonderful part of writing - but one does have to get the balance right of what one finds and subsequently feeds into the story. And funnily, I'm also looking at starting my novel earlier!

  2. Thank you Nicky! Ir is definitely a balance between research/writing. It is too easy to use research as an excuse for not facing that blank page.

  3. Fantastic post Ness. Your book sounds amazing, I wish you well with it and look forward to reading it one day.

    I guess that Henry Miller's list speaks to us all in different ways. I am conscious that if I am creating without pleasure it shows in my work so number 8 feels important to me - it doesn't stop me from working, it just makes me adjust my attitude!

    Totally agree about research, I think there is a point that you get to when you know you have done enough and any more may lead to obsession on that particular issue. But it is important to understand what underpins your story and through clever and selective research you clearly do now.

  4. Thank you Amanda. Given the time I am working hard on the novel. Hopefully one day it will be out there.

    I was thinking about the research thing too and wonder if there is a time that you keep researching rather than writing because actually you haven't got a story properly formed so maybe you should start writing before you do any more research. If that makes sense.
    I do find a lot of my research might not appear directly in my work but it will inform it.
    I love my job LOL