It makes sense

Roses - Ece on Sovalye Fethiye TurkeyI’ve just returned from a trip to Turkey’s stunningly beautiful Lycian Coast. Whilst it was most definitely a holiday, I went, notebook in hand, to refresh my memory and inspire my senses. ‘My first novel’ – its working title, by the way, is Singled Out – is set in Turkey, along this same coastline and I was looking for fine detail.

I carry my writer’s notepad around with me whenever I go out. I occasionally jot odd things down – a few notes whilst I’m sitting in a coffee shop perhaps. It still feels a bit writerly and pretentious, but I expect it may feel more natural in time. Last week in Turkey things took a big leap forward. My notepad, smeared with suntan oil, became a sponge, soaking up my sensory experience, absorbing everything.

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I saw and smelled, tasted and touched, listened to and noticed . . . everything; from sea breezes and sunsets to frogs in a pond and fields of pomegranates; from breakfast buffets to sizzling sea bass; from buzzing mopeds to hissing sprinklers and barking dogs.

But here was the surprise. I’d expected this to be something of a chore, interrupting my lazy sunshine holiday like homework you have to finish before you go back to school after the summer break. But this conscious, purposeful sensory exposure enriched my vacation in a thousand ways I hadn’t expected. It heightened every sense, turned up the volume and sharpened the dazzling, vibrant panorama that is contemporary Turkey – a country I’ve grown to love over many years.

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An Eye on London

London EyeAn old friend is visiting London from Atlanta over the coming days. She hosted me for a holiday several years ago and we toured the Orlando theme parks, Savannah (I remember ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ was my companion book of choice that week) and the beautiful South Carolina Coast.

She’s in London to work, but it’s my turn to host and we plan to snatch a couple of days to play tourist. It occurred to me that I haven’t played tourist in my own home town since I was a child, when I recall being forced to traipse the streets, exposing a succession of visiting American and Canadian relatives to the charms of the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and more.

This time, I’m looking forward to my couple of days as tourist guide. We’re set to visit a few places that I’m embarrassed to confess I haven’t yet experienced. You know when you live somewhere, you do your best to avoid the backpackers, not join their numbers. So unbelievably, I’ve never been on The London Eye, never stood in Shakespeare’s Globe, never crossed The Millennium Bridge and (shame of shames) never visited the Tate Modern.

All these deficits in my life experience will be rectified this week.

I expect we’ll also nose around market stalls, drink coffee at the riverside and find somewhere eclectic and absent of branding for our lunch. I’ll take my notepad and my camera, and I’ll scribble and snap relentlessly, to capture at least a small corner of London, seen through the eyes of a visitor.

The experience won’t be much use for my current novel, which is set in Turkey. But I’ve discovered I like this writing business, so there’ll probably be another one along later, and who knows, it might just involve old friends meeting in an unfamiliar city.

Circle of Missé – This writer progresses…

Last month I spent a wet but hugely inspirational week at Circle of Missé in the Loire Valley in France, on their “A Writer Progresses” course.  Despite the almost incessant rain it was a sublime place to immerse myself in the beginnings of my editing process, tutored and encouraged by the author, Carol Topolski and Circle of Missé’s inestimable host, Wayne Milstead.

Circle of Missé is a writing and cookery school like no other.  A cosy, creaky old house bristling with character and swaddled in the aromas of its rural setting, and of the always-on fresh coffee, local wines and provisions and, of course, the magnificent feasts-in-preparation.   I slept in a bed more comfortable than my own, in a room that fell so silent at night that all I could hear was the cry of an owl.  In the mornings, Carol taught and tutored, and in the afternoons we wrote, with support and insight, where we sought it, from Wayne.

Wayne and co-host Aaron know how to create an ambiance that allows the writer simply to focus on their work, nurtured and well-fed, both physically and creatively.  It’s a special place, and I recommend it warmly.

As for my writing…. With Carol and Wayne’s support, I identified some critical flaws in the foundations of my dirst draft – skeletal back-story, unconvincing motivations – little things like that.  Well, I’m learning, that’s all I can say.  But I also came away with a workable plan for fixing things up – and that’s exciting.

In the end, I took a significant step forward, but realised too, that I was some distance from where I thought I was at the start.  That’s what happens when you open yourself up to learning, to taking advice from people who have so much to give, and give it so generously.  It’s an entirely good thing – it really is.

Colouring-in the Matchstick Men

One issue which has recently emerged in my mentoring sessions is that of giving substance to background characters.

You have your main/leading characters and you have your supporting cast, and these obviously need authentic personalities and strong voices.  But around these people swirls a universe of beings whose job it is to add realism to the backdrop of a story.  They are people in the street, diners in a restaurant, classmates, neighbours, fellow passengers, shop assistants, colleagues and more – in fact anybody not central to the story.

Without a little colouring-in, these characters are simply shadows or matchstick men, and the credibility of the world the lead characters inhabit diminishes as a result.

My mentor pointed me to ‘Songdogs’ by Irish author Colum McCann as being an excellent point of reference for well-drawn background characters.  It’s a beautifully written story, lyrical and authentic and I found many examples to learn from.  The multitude of background characters within its pages are brought to life in just a line or two.  These are thumbnail portraits highlighting a defining feature here, a tone of voice there, a smell, a style of dress, a colour, a habit, a posture, a possession. Together they enrich the reader’s vision of the world the protagonist wanders through.

So that’s another thing I’ve added to my near-infinite list of edits – colouring in the background characters.

Not long to go now, before I get stuck into those edits.  I’m only 10,000 words or so away from The End of my first draft.