Thursday, 28 January 2010

Walking Through Stories

Many writers walk to invent their stories. Dickens apparently wrote most mornings and walked every afternoon. I think his characters and their senarios walked with him, ready for their creation by pen the following morning.

I've used this method for years. It doesn't matter if the surrounds are urban or rural, but naturally it's nicer if there are trees and birds. The most important thing is that I am on my own. When you walk with others, you're bound to chatter. When you walk alone, you chatter to your characters, and they chatter back. In this way, stories develop through your feet. I've walked my way through dialogue, scene-building, description, interior monologue, action, development of plot. Holding it in your head is the hard part - I've been known to race back on the home stretch, my hands itching for the keyboard.

A more recent development has been to walk with Joe (my walking buddy) to explore actual sites for events to happen. As I'm now writing crime fiction, we laughingly call these 'murder walks'. On them we search out the best place to dispose of bodies, the best place to commit the crime, the best place to hide from the cops...whatever is required, really. Actually seeing the landscape enhances the final descriptions from guesswork to atmospheric reality and the 'blocking out' process of making sure things can really happen - all the hows, whys, thens and theres - becomes accurate and simplified.

As we walk, we chat about the interweavings of plot and character with landscape, throw ideas at each other and iron out problems. Such a walking buddy has to be trustworthy...and a bit of a writer themselves, if possible, but mostly any good friend with a pair of lace-up boots would do.

In this way, we've marched through forests, along coastlines, past power stations, been blown off mountains and squelched into bogs. I once walked all around a Killarney lake and ended up with a love song which, foolishly pen and paperless, I had to hold in my head until I returned to my friend's house.

I'd be interested to know if other people do this, and if they feel it's least for the waistline!
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Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A winterwonderland walk with no pictures

Apparently, CCTV has almost had its day, with the introduction of Mission Impossible type spectacles which record whatever you see as you wear them. This news item forced me to ponder…when will we watch these reruns of our day, and will we bother to notice anything that is around us any more, in the knowledge that it’s all on film?
Today, with inches of blustering snow, even in the Bristol area, I went for a two hour walk. I headed towards my local nature reserve across the parkland, nipped over the style at the far side and returned home on a wide circular route. Snow fell, stinging my eyes and tasting icy on my tongue. Children shrieked and pummelled snowballs at each other. As I walked through the wonderland that my locality had suddenly become, the thought passed through my head…should’ve brought a camera…but then I thought – no – not good – nowadays we spend our lives seeing our lives through a lens. I was glad I had no way of recording the exhilaration of my walk, except with my eyes and my memory. It made my awareness of my surroundings more vivid, more memorable.
Some years ago, in Hawaii, I went to the top of Haleakala, the volcano on Mauwi, to watch the sun rise. I was not alone – even though it happens every morning you have to book way in advance to be part of the spectacle, way above the clouds at sunrise. It’s not a fast experience, either. It takes almost an hour (in subzero temperatures), from the first gloriously tantalizing moments as the rays peak above the horizon, to the final eye-blowing experience of full sun. And yet almost every tourist spent most of that hour behind the viewfinder of their camera. I took pictures, too, but I was horrified by the way people were not witnessing the experience at all…they were waiting to view the photos and impress their friends. The same thing happened on the way down the mountain. The coach driver stopped because a very rare Hawiian goose was crossing his path. Every person stood up and began to snap the goose through the windows of the bus. All except me. By the time I’d’ve found my camera and got the bird in the centre of the viewfinder, it would’ve been in thick cover. So I just watched as the goose crossed the road, presumably to get to the ganderary side. Actually, it looked very much like any other goose – especially, I imagine, on those holiday snaps back home.
A few years later, we went to Kintyre for an autumn holiday. It wasn’t until we unpacked that we realized we’d forgotten our camera. We decided to just try to take pictures in our minds. We bought a few postcards, but otherwise, we had to remember that holiday without the usual holiday snaps. I recall the week in Kintyre vividly – the little bay where the seals swam, calling to each other and (I truly believe) listening to my early morning beach song – the fantastic faery-moss wood we walked through – the ‘designer’ stone circles on Aran (more than ten of them, all so different, within a few mile’s radius) – the cup and spiral markings on Neolithic stones – the boar carved on a hillside from the time of the Irish invasions – the boat trip with Jessie our dog (wet through and ponging) – the marvelous meal in a fine hotel where we were the only guests – the ancient yew in the grounds where we were staying. Maybe if we’d taken a camera, I’d have to see the photos now, to remember any of it. Of course, I’m not decrying taking pictures. It is amazing how a holiday snap brings memories back. But it is sad to spend your holiday behind a block of plastic. Not exactly ‘living in the now’, is it?
By the time I reached the stile halfway along my walk, the snow wasn’t falling gently anymore. I was in a mini-blizzard and I began to storm my way home, almost unable to see in front of me. But I will not forget the things I didn’t take a picture of today…the amber fronds of a bare weeping willow, like horse’s tails…the way the snow followed the lines of branches, boughs and twigs in an avenue of poplars, white on black…the treacherous wonder of the drifts and the deep, King Wenceslas footprints I made as I struggled through woodland…the site of the Bowl, which I fought to save from development a few years ago, speckled with snow, birds wheeling overhead…the tobogganing children, their cheeks glowing with a red hue usually only seen on Christmas cards…the twenty-seven-and-a-half snowmen (is there a Northern holiday destination for uncompleted snowmen?). Oddly, the very best snowman was waiting for me at the top of my road – scarf, gloves on sticky arms, complete with walking stick, smiley vegetable face and a crown of greenery.
I almost went back with the camera to take a photo.

But I didn’t.