Tuesday 26 March 2013

Gifts for Writers

Just before Christmas I was contemplating buying a gift for a writing friend. I saw something that looked absolutely fabulous in Waterstones. It was called “The Writer’s Toolkit” or something similar. It looked delightful. It came in a very attractive tin. It contained lots of prompts, tips and treats for the writer.
But I really shouldn’t spend that amount of money on my friend. She has given up the day job, lives on a shoe string and can only buy people token presents. It would embarrass her.
It struck me, though, that I could make her a Toolkit myself. The time it would take and the care in the choices I made would be the real gift. The Toolkit would come mainly from bits and pieces I had lying around.
I didn’t do it this year but I’m actually considering doing it for next year and also for one or two other writing friends.
Here are some of the ingredients for a Writer’s Toolkit:
  • An attractive tin or box to put everything in
  • A few old postcards – the pictures on the front and the messages on the back may lead to stories (I actually use old postcards a lot with my students. Go to a postcard fair and you can often pick job lots of old postcards for a small amount to money.)
  • Half a dozen or so favourite creative writing exercises (I’d probably gear these to the particular writer – perhaps trying to push them a little out of their comfort zone.)
  • Some free post cards – I’d write prompts on the back
  • Some brightly coloured post-it notes (off my own pad if I’m really doing this on a tight budget)
  • Some nice pens
  • Some other bits of stationery
  • An attractive note-book (Okay. You’d have to buy this but you can often find bargains. Keep your eyes open when you’re out and about.)  
  • A book I’ve enjoyed – with a note about why I’d enjoyed it and how it might help the writer
  • A chocolate bar (squeezed out of the weekly shop)
  • A few paint colour charts to provide exotic names for a piece of flash fiction or poems
  • A few photographs that might prompt a story
  • A list of trustworthy small press publishers who’re currently open to submission
  • A collection of newspaper cuttings of incidents that would make the good basis of a story         
  • A list of affirmations about being a writer  
I have the feeling that I’d get a good deal of fun putting these kits together. Do you dare me? And if you know a writer who’s on a diet right now, would this be a good alternative to an Easter egg. (Skip the chocolate bar!)

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Writing History

I’m currently working on my second Holocaust project. This is the story of one Clara Lehrs, born in 1871 and exterminated in 1942 at Treblinka. I’m writing about her life from 1918, when her husband died, until her own death in 1947. See more on my blog The House onSchellberg Street.
I have the bare bones of the story and if I divide that into scenes there is pretty well a full length book – probably about 90,000 words.
Two types of details
Concrete facts        
In order to tell the story accurately there are certain things I really need to know:
  • Where people lived
  • Where they married
  • Where children were born
  • Which day of the week certain dates fall on
  • What was happening in the background in key places at key times – e.g. Mecklenburg, Berlin, Jena, Stuttgart, Rexingen, 1918, 1924, 1928, 1933, 1938, 1942
Setting details
At various times I need to know about:
·         Homes
·         Clothes
·         Towns
·         Transport
·         Political problems that impinge on everyday life e.g. inflation, treatment of Jews,
·         Feelings of well-being / feelings of being oppressed
Sources of information
Primary resources
·         documents  - death / birth certificates
·         verbatim accounts written at the time
·         diaries
·         letters  
I actually own quite a few of these so that was a good start.
Repeated experience
·         train journeys through Europe
·         visits to places mentioned above plus Theresienstadt and Treblinka  
·         viewing the house on Schellberg Street
I’m planning a trip to cover this and I’ve used crowd-funding to finance it.
Research through imagination
There are some things we just cannot find out. At that point all we can do is put the characters in the situation with as many facts as we know and as much setting material as we can muster and see what happens. It almost becomes a type of “method” writing – a little like method acting.  

Procrastination tool?    
I tend to ascertain the verifiable facts before I write. However, the writing itself asks more questions. How did young married women behave in the early 1890s? What was it like living in Berlin 1871 – 1914 (la belle époque)?  What did they wear back then? Even when I’m sitting at my desk writing I tend to do two hours research to one hour of writing.
Then there are the visits and researching the concrete details.
So this particular 90,000 words will take a long time to write.  No matter, all the other activities are writerly ones and not actually a procrastination tool even if that’s what they look like.
And actually, what an interesting way to spend one’s time.