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Heisenberg's taste in tapestries

Writing for radio part 4: writing

It sounds a bit obvious, but I realised that knowing my radio story would be spoken aloud and heard, not written and read, did change things. I write in first person most of the time, because it's so much easier to find the right, particular, different voice and the plotting problems it leads to are usually surmountable. If I want more than one viewpoint I'll have more than one first-person narrator. But I'd been flirting with the idea of writing this story in third person with a shifting or even omniscient point of view, since it's a while since I did that, and because I'm rather more seriously flirting with the idea of doing it for the next novel. The reader, in such a story, would be the storyteller. But when I started to imagine an actual person saying words aloud, it clearly was saying 'I', so that was that.

I also knew, by the time I was talking to Cecilia the producer, that it would be an old man, remembering something in his youth. This double, past-and-present narrative, too, seems to be a form that I'm drawn to - all three narratives in A Secret Alchemy are built on versions of it - and I think it's for various reason. First, since I'm always writing about history even when the story doesn't have a historical setting, bringing time in as a process which is personal as well as historical, links the narrator and their story into the larger nature of life: we are narrative creatures because we exist in time. Second, since fiction is always about cause and effect - it's the basics of narrative drive - you're more aware of it if the story of the causes and how the effects came about are embodied in the ultimate effects: the 'now' of the narrator. 'How the Whale Became' is about before and after. And third, this past-and-present structure allows a version of what is otherwise the big advantage that third person has over first: free indirect style. With an old man, telling the story of his much younger self, you have two subtly different voices at your disposal, and can slide in and out of that younger voice just as Austen can slide in and out of Emma's...

But of course you have to find that voice - those voices. For reasons I won't go into, because if I didn't then kill you the BBC would kill me, I plucked David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and Uncle Silas from the shelf. No, my story isn't a bildungsroman involving self-determining governesses and Swedenborgian villains, but I needed to stock my intuition with words, rhythms and mindsets of the times. However, since Tuesday to Friday were swamped with work on the novel, with domestic stuff wedged into the cracks, I ended up carrying them around under my arm so as to grab a few pages when I could, and hoping that voice can be transmitted transcutaneously, like nicotine or HRT. Inevitably I had to de-Dickens a few bits of the novel, though the wisps of Brontë were rather effective, whereas I doubt if you could spot a whisper of any of those books in the voice of my story. But as ever, research ends up not obviously providing what you were looking for, but infusing and inspiring something completely different: where my narrator came from suddenly sprang into life. And then the first line came into my head. I already had the ending, the central problem, 'Lost in the Lanes' , I had the length, and I had Google maps and StreetView, Wikipedia, and a little guide to the history of its streets at my elbow. And now I had the beginning and the voice.

I'm a great believer in craft, and I know from experience that it's perfectly possible, once you know what you're doing, to write successful stuff in cold blood. So I wish I could write you a blow-by-blow account of how I wrote the story: the choices, decisions, strategies, false-starts and cul-de-sacs, but I can't, because I don't know. At the risk of sounding smug, all I can say is that I sat down on the Sunday morning with a pen and a notebook, and two and a half hours later I had a story.

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