29 May 2013

A Perfect World

Every day I pass a billboard, actually I pass a number of billboards, but this particular one is at a set of traffic lights, so I’ve had time to study it.

The picture is supposed to represent an office. You’ll understand why I say supposed as I describe it.

Two glamorous ladies sit either side of a gleaming white desk enjoying a cup of coffee. They look as though they’re ready to model the latest designer labels rather than a day at the office. I know the desk is white because other than a laptop on one side, and an Apple keyboard and monitor (no computer!) on the other side, the desks are bare. Apologies, I forgot to mention the vase of flowers.

I’ve worked in many offices, and never have I seen one that looked less real than this. The keyboard and monitor are stylish, but useless without a computer and where is the work they're supposed to be doing? I'm also pretty sure I’d knock over the vase at some stage while working.

The billboard shows a perfect office, but I’ve never yet seen one in reality.

Whatever the genre of your book, one of the most important things to get right is setting. It doesn’t need endless paragraphs of description. A few judicious words in the right place will paint a scene for the reader, and not just any scene, but the one you want people to see.

To me setting covers a number of points, though some may be more important than others at any given time. 

Where am I?  The genre will give some pointers. 
  • Fantasy – am I in a different world, or a different version of earth. 
  • Sci-fi – is it a different world, or a future version of earth? How far in the future? 
  • Historical – what point in history? What country?
If you have a mix of genres then setting becomes even more important. Think Cadfael - historical murders.

If your setting is contemporary, there are still a huge amount of options. 
New York, London, Sydney.....
City, small town, rural, coastal.....
Hospital, fire station, school, university.....

The list is endless. 

The location makes a difference to our view of the characters. Do they live in the rush of a large city, or the comparative peace of a rural setting? Do they love where they live, or are they there under sufferance? Why?  

Time.   What time period does your book cover? In a contemporary setting even a year or two can make a difference to the technology your characters use, or the landmarks they might see. In my first draft of Lives Interrupted I had Kate looking at a memorial that wasn't actually on the embankment until some time after the year the book was set.

What season? This may, or may not be important to your plot.

It’s crucial to get your setting right. The poster I mentioned at the start of this post doesn’t show any type of office I’d recognise as being ‘real’. 

There’s a lot to be said for writing what you know. You don't have to let this restrict you, but if you're not familiar with the setting it will mean researching to get it right.

If you set your book in a different country think about the lifestyle, what hours people work, their food, and how they talk. Even though Australians, Americans, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders all speak English, they sound different. They use different words, and some different sentence structures.

If you set your novel in a hospital, and you’ve never worked in one, you’ll need to get to know someone who does. The same goes for setting a book in a university or police station, or anywhere else that works in a very specific way. There’s a reason why John Grisham writes legal and courtroom dramas. 

If you get things wrong in your setting, you can be sure there is an expert out there who will see all the errors.

My husband always quotes the start of the film Top Gun when making this point. The inside shots of the cockpit, and the outside shots of the planes making the manoeuvres don't match up. I’m not an expert on aircraft and can’t tell the difference, but I know what a real office looks like!

Yes, we’re writing fiction, but it’s got to be as real as we can make it.

26 May 2013

‘Words have meaning and names have power’

A lot of years ago I had a short-term work contract at a university in Wales. To be honest, I don’t actually remember much about the job, but what I do remember is the large database of student names.

The full name of each student was captured, and while there were some interesting first names, there were many more unusual middle names.

Names tell a lot about a person. They are generally a good pointer to age, famous celebrities of the time, and in the UK they are also an indicator of social status. They also say a lot about the parents.

A few of those names have stuck in my mind. One male student was named after several famous soccer players – his father was obviously an ardent Manchester United fan. Among the females was a Tamsin Tinuviel and another girl called Arwen, their parents would have been fans of Tolkein, or at least had read Lord of the Rings.

Before Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple, I knew a lady called Brie.

Choosing names for my characters is something that takes time, and the names are often changed several times as I get to know the characters.

In my current novel, Lies of the Dead, the names of the three main characters never changed. I think that is a first for me.

The oldest of the three siblings is Tom. He is pragmatic and reliable, and (to me) this name fits him well. I didn’t look up the origin or meaning of the name, so I may have it completely wrong, but for me it suited him totally.

Andi is the middle sibling, her name is Andrea but she shortened it to Andi as a child, hoping it would make her mother love her more. How sad is that!

Liam is the youngest of the three. He is always called that, though we discover early on his full name is William, which he hates.

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says, ‘What’s in a name?’  I think the answer to that is everything.

‘Words have meaning and names have power.’ 

Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.’ W.H.Auden

08 May 2013

Mixing Business and Pleasure

This world of ours seems to get more frazzled and frantic on a daily basis, leaving us with less time to spend on what's important, if we let it.

It's often difficult to put work out of our mind and just enjoy the moment, as so many articles and magazines tell us to do.

Working full-time and writing novels doesn't make that any easier either (not that I'm complaining!), but this week I've managed to mix pleasure and writing business on a couple of levels.  

I have a number of writer friends, and at the moment I'm beta-reading a novel by one of them. Reading often feels like a guilty pleasure, as when I'm reading I think I should be writing, but this week I can tell myself it's work.

I also belong to a Writers Group and on Sunday we're having our monthly meeting. We usually meet mid-week after work, but this month we're getting out of Auckland and meeting at the home of one of our group who lives further afield. 

With this in mind, and because work has been especially frantic the past few weeks, I decided to take the opportunity of a weekend in Raglan. A great mix of downtime and writing, and with the two extracts we're critiquing I've had more reasons for reading!

05 May 2013

Fascinating Phrases

Although companies talk a lot about using 'Plain English', I think it's still as far away as ever. On the positive side a lot of it makes me smile.

A sign on a door says, 'This door is alarmed.' Every time I see it, I wonder what's worrying the door.

In an email recently I came across this gem. This document was socialised. I know people socialise their dogs, but documents!

Another one was 'obtaining a rate via a skeleton' - hmm, that paints a vivid picture.

In the past couple of days I've heard two phrases that always irritate me.

'Almost exactly' and 'almost unique'. 

I won't bother with the rant, it is the weekend.

What funny phrases have you come across recently, and what are the misuses of words that irritate you most?