Writing My Way In

I am writing. No, honestly, I am!

My current work-in-progress is evolving in a new way; I've never approached a book like this before. Generally the jumping-off point for a new novel for me is a scene or an image, like a scene in a silent film. For Singer, it was an image of a girl gazing over a snowy landscape, seeing an unconscious stranger carried to the tower on which she stood; for Taste Of Lightning, it was a herd of white horses flowing over a hill. Gradually I begin to see the figures in the landscape more clearly, their situation evolves, my characters come into focus and take on their own life, and the story accretes around them, like a pearl forming around a morsel of grit (well, hopefully it's a pearl). Often the piece of grit (that initial image) doesn't survive the writing process, but it's the foundation for all that follows.

This time it's different. Because I started out wanting to write about a particular time and place (PNG in the 1970s), I didn't begin with any characters, or a clear situation. I've accumulated lots of characters now (exiled schoolgirl Julie, dashing young pilot Doug, hard-bitten housewife Barb, haus meri Koki, explorer's son Simon), but they're just milling around, staring at me mutely, waiting for directions. I have to find something for them to do.

It's complicated, too, by the fact that my own memories keep getting in the way. It's hard to push my personal history aside, to remember that this story is not about me or my family, that this is fiction, that I have to imagine my way in, just as I would with any other story, not fall back on reminiscence. I'm not Julie, and my sister is not Nadine; Allan and Barbara are definitely not my parents.

So I've been writing my way in: fragments of scenes where two characters interact, talk to each other, go to a party, argue, swap books. I never know what's going to happen when I put them in a room together. Julie and the mission wife next door unexpectedly began to play Monopoly; Julie's mother cast lustful looks in a surprising direction; Julie's sister Nadine turns out to be a compulsive fibber. This is all very interesting (for me), but it isn't yet a story.

Then yesterday the scene that I've unconsciously been waiting for dropped into my mind -- the spark to ignite the narrative, the push to start the story rolling. Once I'd seen it, it seemed so obvious: of course, that's what happened! This is how X and Y and Z first met, this is what binds them, this is the source of the tension between them, this is their shared secret. The mists lift and there is the solution, plain and simple and true. Everything else flows from this; the shape of the story begins dimly to reveal itself, like a mountain range lifting out of the clouds. Which is a very appropriate metaphor in this instance, as anyone familiar with the Highlands will recognise.

Now I just have to write the damn thing.

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