Monday, February 6, 2012
Index Cards and the Art of Writing
You collect your notes and jottings, but how to get those into your novel?
I collect my notes and write them down onto index cards. This can be quite a time consuming process, but I find it's best to delay my initial enthusiasm for a story. To dam up the enthusiasm so that it starts to overflow. These notes can come from anywhere. I pick my reading pre-novel quite carefully. Poems I find are the best place, as they're quick and easy to skim through as I'm looking for phrases or sentences or descriptions that excite me. For Hastings, my forthcoming sequel to Shieldwall, I came across the Nobel Prize winning Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, and found many details of a Scandinavian landscape that would have been familiar to many of my characters. At the same time I might be using details that I've picked up from Sagas, or something more left field, like one of the Tang Dynasty poets, whose laments for China during invasions from the steppes, were fertile ground for gleaning details for Shieldwall, which covers a similar time in English history.
And even though these Tang Dynasty poets are divided from Dark Age England by thousands of miles, in many ways they lived in similar worlds, divided by distance but not by time: so many of the basic details of common day life would be more familiar to an Anglo Saxon or a Viking than they are to the modern reader.
Often the story starts to develop as I'm thumbing through old notes. Sparks start to fly. Connections begin to form, and I learn things about my characters and about the challenges they face from the notes that I have gleaned. I think this is natural. The reason the phrases first excited me is because they spark something within my mind. And its from the same dark reaches of the sub conscious that the stories come back out again.
I keep these index cards in a drawer: and they're roughly divided between those that are only relevant to the modern world (advertising slogans, and DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS signs etc) and all the others. When I start a project, I sit down and go through them and pick out ones that speak to me and this particular story.
Then I pin them onto the wall, and surround myself with all these little bits of a story. They're like salvaged pieces from an enormous and mostly lost jigsaw puzzle, blutacked up all over my room. It's my job to find the right place for them within the 'picture'.
Eventually the day comes when you have to start writing. And here comes the practical bit. You remember the cards that sparked ideas - and look over all the overs. Some will speak to you, others will not. Some will claim a place within the scene you are about to write. I take all these and pin them up above my screen. And these are then the stepping stones for the scene ahead of me.
Because they are scraps that have come from so many places, they add a broad depth of detail or register to your writing. You can play around with them, by limiting yourself to only using notes from certain sources for various characters, which brings a subtle change of voice for each character. What you can do with this process is almost limitless. And you don't need to limit yourself to index cards and language. You can use pictures instead!