Posts Tagged ‘characters’

Although my writing focus is on poetry at the moment, I continue to practice some of the writing tools I have found useful.

One of these is reading the news with an eye to an interesting or unexpected story.  As someone deeply engaged in politics I also read political blogs and websites to understand different responses to those stories.

This is proving to be a real eye opener – although I don’t agree with many responses I have a much better comprehension about why some people want to see the world structured in particular ways.

From the human, bloggers for peace, point of view, understanding is imperative to social cohesion.

From a writing point of view, it’s a great way to test out characters.

You can take any character you have written and imagine them reading a post.  What do they think? How do they react? Is the topic something they would have a strong reaction to or discuss with friends? What is their political point of view? Are they engaged with current affairs, do they watch the news or read a paper?

You might never write about anything of this nature but it doesn’t matter: the better you know your character, the more believable and consistent they will be.

So if you find yourself reading something which doesn’t reflect your view, take a chance on it, and read through the eyes of your character. It might provide the spark of engagement you need to find.

Happy writing,




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Last week I told you I was reading to explore feeling as an element of setting.  I didn’t get to the poetry part of my reading but I did finish the novel: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.

If I am being completely honest, I stopped reading with purpose very early on, as I was enjoying reading the story so much, but I did pick up on a few elements.

For those who don’t know the story, it is a love story which starts in a cancer support group for kids.  Hazel is terminally ill but in limbo thanks to her drug regimen, and Augustus had bone cancer which cost him his leg.

The reason this is important is because feeling in the book was often about the impact of illness: Hazel can feel discomfort in a location based not only on the place but on her physical symptoms at that time.

We are led as readers to think about physical bodies in different ways throughout the book – the Literal Heart of Jesus, which is where the support group meets, the tickling in Hazel’s nose as she breathes in the oxygen from her tank, the crooked smile of Augustus, the elements people have lost due to treatment.  Importantly, though the characters have a high degree of charm and intelligence and a verbosity above that of most teenagers they are ‘normal’, if such a thing exists.  They are people who happen to have or have had cancer.  It is part of them but not them.

I don’t feel this book will help with the elements of setting I want to develop but I do think the thematic device of exploring the physicality of a scene is another way to approach the subject which is new to me.

It is also a great example of how to write characters who come to life for the reader.  I have never read a book with so many jokes about illness and its consequences, and the reason it works and doesn’t offend is because the characters are so genuine and you can truly imagine the slightly unnerving banter being accepted in this group.  It is very cleverly done because however risky the jokes, the characters maintain their likeability.  It’s a good example of how important the consistency of a character is for the effective telling of stories.

I may refer back to this book when I focus on characters.

Happy reading,





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I said last week that I was going to approach the Challenge Tuesday posts a little differently this year, and read with purpose.  I actually started reading this particular book in December but feel that it meets my new criteria so am reporting on it anyway!

Alias Grace is a novel by Margaret Atwood, who is one of my favourite writers.  It is a fictionalised story based on the true life character of Grace Marks, who was convicted with her alleged paramour of the murder in 1843.

I enjoy Atwood’s writing style, which is both complex and entirely accessible.  In this particular book though, it wasn’t the style but the approach that I found so intriguing and noteworthy.

There were two murders for which Marks and James McDermott were accused: the killing of Thomas Kinnear, their employer, and of Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper and likely lover of Kinnear. Montgomery was pregnant at the time of her death, which at the time stood against her: although the pair were convicted of murdering Kinnear, there was no trial for Montgomery.  As the death sentence had been passed there was deemed to be no need.  In fact, Marks was not executed but was pardoned in 1872.

But despite all the dramatic possibility within these elements Atwood doesn’t focus on them.  They set parameters in which the character’s experience of the world is set, but they are not the core of her story.

Instead we are presented with a (fictional) doctor whose interest in what we would now call mental health leads him to meet with Marks, to see if her amnesia about the events of the fateful day is real.

What follows is a mixture of Marks’s life story, interwoven with the doctor’s experiences in the town he has taken up residence, and some of the well-meaning but somewhat frivolous people who are trying to get Marks pardoned.  The crime itself is only described in any detail during a session of something akin to hypnosis.

Marks is humanised through the book.  Her reflections on what is ‘proper’ behaviour for staff in a household are both ironic and heartfelt: her regret with regard to her own breaches of etiquette is completely believable from the character Atwood has created, and yet we are aware the doctor is only interested in understanding her because she is a notorious murderer.

As a whole, the book could be the biography of a murderer, or about a famous crime in Canada in the 19th century, or about life in service, or about mental health.  It is all these things and none: it takes elements from multiple genres to create a rich meal.

Fundamentally, as a reader I took away the fact that in a strong story the crime itself doesn’t need to be the focus, it is the criminal (or accused, at least) who has to be deciphered.  As a writer, I have a better perception of how to take a real event and cast it under a fictional light.

Extremely satisfying, on both counts!

Happy reading,



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This week I had yet another bug (and we haven’t even got into the winter cold season yet!) which wiped me out for a few evenings. Hopefully I’ve seen the back of that now but it was a reminder that it only takes a few days to lose the writing habit.

In order to cheer myself up a little I invested in some new writing tools – a book of short exercises which I will be able to do in my lunchtimes (unlike the plot and structure ones which require longer sessions) and a big pack of pens in lots of different colours which I can use to mark up my output. I like to use colour as a tool in presenting ideas, as it can be useful at identifying themes and patterns.

Never let it be said you can have too many of either!!

It’s not all doom any gloom on the writing front though – I have done some writing exercises this week, trying to work out both Fred’s next move and whether there is any life left in the crime story I was working on before I got ill in the summer.

I have not really wanted to pick that one up again because I feel so removed from it, but the characters were interesting. I am considering keeping them and the setting, but building a new story around them.

I would like to do that. As there was a degree of confusion in my key character already – she wasn’t sure whether she trusted her perception of events – I think there is scope to change the storyline and bring a different outcome to bear without losing her voice or her sense of disequilibrium.

However, I know from my mistakes before I have to work hard at the planning stage – so daytime exercises will be generating ideas and imagery, evenings will be spent shuffling things around and seeing what has possibilities by leaning more heavily on my plot and structure tools.

Only when I have a full, strong, narrative will I actually start the writing phase. It’s like decorating a house – you have to do the prep work first!

So this week has been a little slow, but useful; next week I need to step it up a gear.

Happy writing,

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Wow, I’m 3 for 3, and I even took a photo for your delectation!

Book 40 – Lady Oracle, by Margaret Atwood.  Joan Foster is a complicated woman, with a complicated history. After faking her own death she runs away to a small village in Italy to start a new life away from the fear and complexities of her own.  Alone and out of control, she thinks about the stages of her life and the people who have shaped her experiences. From fat child who used her weight as a weapon against her mother to loneliness in London; from a life with a Polish Count to bored housewife; from slush writer to acclaimed novelist, Joan has lost sight of her own identity.

However, she soon realises that running away is not quite as easy as she thought, and she knows someone is coming for her…

This book is actually really hard to explain, and in reading what I have written there I am not sure I have captured the essence of the story.  To me, this book is all about self, as in finding what exactly ‘self’ is to someone who has no clear idea who they are.

Despite her many accomplishments Joan still sees herself as the fat child: bullied and cajoled by others, fighting a battle of wills with her mother, even when her mother has passed away.  Her successful writing career is a secret from her husband because he won’t find her work sufficiently intellectual, and yet when she does finally make a literary impact he doesn’t support her anyway.  She hides her history, creating a new and more satisfying story for herself and in the meantime losing the opportunity to explain why she feels or behaves as she does.

Joan is not herself, and even when reading the book you wonder if her narrative is entirely accurate because there is so much of the world she chooses to hide, or ignore.


I really enjoy reading Margaret Atwood because her characters drive the stories. There might be nothing in particular happening in a scene but their internal monologue is so convincing that you believe their dramatic explanations of events. They create drama even in the most simple of situations.

In this particular case you feel for Joan too – her lonely childhood punctuated by visits to an aunt who died in her teens, the naive way she accidentally ends up as a mistress, her desperate need to be loved fully and without judgement.  In creating a separate identity for her commercial writing she put part of herself behind a curtain and her husband never pulled it back.

This book was hard for me to put down once I started reading; I found the ending a bit odd but it was in keeping with the out of kilter nature of the story so worked in that context.  The characters were engaging, the story complicated but satisfying, and the style of writing full of depth and quality but fluid and easy to read – I never feel like I’m reading a thesaurus when reading Atwood, despite her clever and rich use of language.

As someone who enjoys this style of writing I would definitely recommend the book; I always enjoy books about the human experience.  This has more to it than just the one theme, but it’s the element which most interests me and therefore the one I absorb!

Happy reading,



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Wow, I’m 2 for 2 now!

Book 39 – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Juliet is a writer looking for a new story and something to inspire her in post-war London. Out of the blue she received a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams, who has come into possession of an old book of hers. He lives on the island of Guernsey which has been occupied during the war and the islanders are only just able to communicate with the outside world after years of isolation.

Juliet is intrigued and thus begins a fascination with the island, the people and their experiences of war, which fundamentally changes her writing, and her life.

The story is told primarily through letters between Juliet, her publisher, and the islanders, with a few others thrown into the mix here and there. Although some people only feature in one or two of the letters the whole creates a full and complex world. The experiences of war are summed up through loss and missed opportunities but also in great strength and humanity.

One of the most touching elements of the book is that one of the key characters is never actually seen, but lives on the page through the comments and reminiscences of others.

I bought this book and lent it to my mum before I read it – who proceeded to read it and then read it again straight away before I got it back, so I was intrigued how I would take to it myself.

I have to say that I found it witty, warm and spirited, with characters who often came alive in a way that would have been difficult with a different style – for example face to face meetings or different narrators.  There were side stories, characters who came and went in just a few words, and a sense of the complexity of life and humanity in the face of evil.

It is a book I have no doubt I will re-read in the future; I liked Juliet and her intelligent, funny and self-depreciating approach to life and the sense of hope for a future after the bleakness of the war. It’s sad that Shaffer only wrote one book because her style and voice are very readable and enjoyable.

It’s one I would recommend.

Happy reading,




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I’ve only gone and read a book!

Book 38 – Chocolat, by Joanne Harris. This book follows Vianne Rocher and Curé Francis Reynaud, as their lives interweave through Lent in a small village in France. Vianne is exotic, mysterious and beguiling and the chocolate shop she sets up soon becomes a beacon for changes in the village.

Reynaud is threatened and angered by her hold over the villagers and the way she has enabled change to develop in the community.

As Vianne’s warmth, openness and bohemian ways change the lives and views of the people around her, Reynaud realises he has to take more direct action to stop her and save the souls of his flock…

I hadn’t planned on reading anything this week but it felt like I was missing something and so I decided to pick up a new novel. I previously read the opening paragraph and put this down again, thinking it was going to be a bit overblown.

Happily I gave it a second shot because I really lost myself in Vianne’s world.

There are lots of interesting characters and some seriously dubious behaviour, but if this whole book had been nothing more than Vianne exploring the world through the judicious application of decorations it still would have been worth reading.

Vianne is one of those characters who infuse a book, where you can see her impact and power even when she’s silent. She makes things happen, she’s wild and magical, she’s as decadent and alluring as her products.

Reynaud’s viewpoint chapters, on the other hand, didn’t do much for me – they moved the story on, gave our heroine a force to fight against, but they weren’t nearly as much fun to read. I suppose if she is chocolate, he is vinegar. The two swapping narrator roles meant there was force and resistance in the narrative but the attraction for me as a reader was Vianne, and it was always a little bit underwhelming when she wasn’t leading the storytelling.

However it also showed that her slightly unreal view of the world was closer to the truth than Reynaud’s tale or his flock’s confessions.

As you can probably tell, it was the character that drew me in, her worldview, experiences and understanding shaping an entirely new set of people from their original material. The storyline as a whole had a lot going for it but it is Vianne who makes it work.

This is worth reading, particularly for ideas about character. Plus, it’s about chocolate and that’s never a bad thing!

Happy reading,



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Having caught up with all my completed novels in Thursday’s post I made a bit of a rookie error, because I didn’t finish the book I was in the process of reading at the time – so now it’s a failed challenge week!

So to replace books tonight I will tell you about another new challenge I have taken on – learning to sew. I was inspired by a chat with Mrs Fox over at Mrs Fox’s Finery about making clothes that suit our own styles. That led me on to a conversation with a friend who lives a few doors from me about finding a sewing coach – and she offered to coach me herself!

So today was day 1 and I made a mini cushion cover, a prototype for a project I will be working on soon.  It was really just to give me a change to get familiar with the machine using basic stitches but I was very proud of my slightly wonky creation.  I would have shared an action shot if it weren’t for the problems I am having with my newly-upgraded computer…

I do love that rush of excitement when something works out; and until I feel up to proper writing again this is a less intensive way to fulfil my creative needs.

Anyway, that’s taken us a long way from the book talk I am here to share.  I will probably finish the book tomorrow, irritatingly, and will therefore tell you all about it next week!

Happy reading,



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Having got myself all geared up for a bit of crime, this week I chose…

The Dressmaker

Book 17 – The Dressmaker, by Rosalie Ham. This is the story of Tilly  Dunnage, who returns as an adult to the small Australian town she was forced to leave at 10 years old. Her return is unwelcome by both the townsfolk, who remember her implication in the death of her classmate, and her mother, Mad Molly, who lives with a possum in a dilapidated shack on the hill overlooking the town tip.

As Tilly’s dressmaking skills allow her a small glimpse into the town, and the love of local football hero Teddy give her strength and support, she starts to feel hopeful for the future.  But despite her skills, she is not acceptable, and her ejection from social life starts a chain of events that lead to the transformation of the community and the chance for Tilly to finally get her revenge…

There are a couple of spoilers ahead, which I have highlighted.

This book gives me pause.  It wasn’t at all what I was expecting and I think that’s part of my issue.  About three chapters in, there was already a huge amount that I really didn’t like. In fact, I thought it was pretty vile and almost stopped reading. The townspeople were nasty, ugly-souled, cruel and indistinguishably horrible. I carried on, but I never really got a lot of joy from the book.

The more the fashion came into it, and the more the outward appearances were improved as a result of Tilly’s skill, the more it became clear that it was their insides that were wrong. If I had to say what was the strongest part of the book, it was the use of the beautiful wardrobes and the wonderful materials to show how appearance was all.

But our heroine wasn’t entirely heroic either. In fact (spoiler alert) her vengeance at the end of the book was arbitrary, damaging even those who had stood beside her when she was an outcast (spoiler over!).

There are some lovely elements to the writing and the story, little poetic moments and scenes where the characters seem genuine and believable.  One of my favourites was Mad Molly whose erratic and dangerous behaviour was interspersed with the mundane and the beautiful; this was a believable portrayal of dementia.  Unfortunately, the underlying ugliness – and removal of its counterbalance in Teddy and his family – meant the story was just shade, with no light available.

This is a book I have to think about a bit more, because despite its commercial success (having been made into a film) I just didn’t feel it. I looked at goodreads, and it does seem to be a Marmite book.  A lot of my own discomfort is reflected – too many characters, who are too stereotypical, and too predictable in their behaviour; too much abusive behaviour; too much random description of genitalia in weird contexts.  It all took me out of the book and made me a little impatient to be getting on.

I liked Tilly as a woman, but the ongoing references to her beauty as though it made her somehow better than others was obvious.  And (spoiler alert again) the description of her ‘country-ruddy’ face just before she destroys the town weirdly suggests being normal-looking is related to cruelty and wickedness, at least in the universe this book inhabits (spoiler over).

Yeah, the more I type, the more I think this book wasn’t for me.  It was so frequently unpleasant, and no amount of glamorous outfits overcame that.  I’m sure some of you would enjoy it but it’s not my style at all.

Next time I’m reading something that’s fun!

Happy reading,



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This week, I’ve read four – yes, 4! – new books, all written by Alexander McCall Smith.

Book 3 – The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  This book introduces us to Precious Ramotswe, owner of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the only detective agency in Botswana.  The story follows her as she sets up her business, employs Mma Makutsi as her secretary, and undertakes a variety of investigations – from freedom-seeking daughters to the possible death of a child at the hands of a witch doctor.

Book 4 – Tears of the Giraffe continues the story of Mma Ramotswe.  Newly engaged and the target of a campaign she knows nothing about, she is approached by an American lady to discover the fate of her son who disappeared a decade ago.  Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe find her own family unexpectedly growing…

Book 5 – Morality for Beautiful Girls sees the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in financial trouble despite some interesting cases, including the quest to uncover a poisoning plot and the boy who smells of lion…  As she struggles with her business worries, Mma Ramotswe’s fiance Mr J. L. B. Matekoni struggles with depression and Mma Makutsi finds her feet as both Assistant Detective and Assistant Garage Manager.

Book 6 – The Kalahari Typing School for Men sees Mr J.L.B. Matekoni returns to work following his illness, Mma Makutsi sets up her own business and Mma Ramotswe has to face the challenge of a new Detective on the block – and a moral quandary when a case seeps into her personal life.

As they are four of a series I have decided to do a joint review, which I hope will make sense as you read it!

I initially started with book 2 of the series, and could not get into it at all, but having bought 6 or 7 at a book sale I was determined to persevere, so I sought out book 1.  I really feel this series has to be read from the start, because so much builds on previous knowledge.

(Incidentally, there are some continuity issues – such as Mma Makutsi is a widow in book 1 but this is never being referred to again, and subsequently she is identified as a single lady who has never found love. Equally, some of the timescales do not fit with earlier information provided, which I suspect I only noticed having read them in a block.   However, they didn’t really bother me much.)

The style of writing is unusual, and I do smile that after 4 books Mma Ramotswe still refers to her fiance as Mr J. L. B. Matekoni – I have no idea of his first name, and neither apparently does anyone else!

It took me a while to get into the flow but once I did, I devoured these books.

They engage the reader in Botswana so the country itself is a character, its dust and sky and cattle elements of its personality.   The country is spoken of with such love, respect and pride that I went and looked up holidays there after the third book!

The characters are engaging and although some elements don’t lead where you expect – such as Mr J. L. B Matekoni’s depression – they create an opportunity for another character to change, leading them to develop and grow in the narrative.

These books evoke a different world, and even within the storyline it’s a world that is steadily disappearing.  There are questions of morality, respect, attitude and culture that are not universal, and make the reader think about their own responses to the situations.

However, they are not morality tales, and the overriding feeling when experiencing the world through Mma Ramotswe’s eyes is that everyone is human, no-one is perfect, and mistakes can be forgiven.  That’s not a bad underlying message in my eyes.

I add a little bonus star for the gender dynamics displayed; the sense that women are starting to challenge the male dominated power in a land still identifying with traditional familial roles.  The gentle way stereotypes are set up and squashed in the book – such as the disabled girl who wants to be a mechanic, and the detective who suggests only men are able to investigate,only for him to fail in his job – are not uncomfortable or excessive, but show the people of a young country changing as the world around them changes.

I would recommend these books; for as long as I am reading them, I am transported out of the rainy, grey January of the UK and into the open skies and dry air of Africa.  I like Mma Ramotswe and her ‘traditionally built’ body, her appreciation of new dresses and bargain shopping, her kind and generous nature and the evident hope that she can do some good in the world, or at least ease the pain of those who have been wronged.  I enjoy her showing me the world she knows, and my favourite parts of the books by far are her viewpoint sections.

Plus, if nothing else, I’ve learnt a little of Botswana’s history along the way!

Happy reading



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