Do Nasty Characters Reflect a Nasty Author?

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I realized that in my earlier post I never actually talked about the interesting conversation I had with my friend from my writing group.

She had written a piece which used “strong language” in certain parts. She was concerned that people who would read this story would make a judgement on her as a person for using that language.

What I said is pretty much what I feel. That it’s the character speaking.

She replied that some people might say that although it’s a character in a story, the words reflect who you, the author, are.

There are several interesting discussion points right there. I pointed out that usually writers are told to write about things they know. Most people have loved or hated in their life, gone through heartbreak and pain, then – hopefully – healed and got over it. Others may have dealt with different issues; aging parents, health problems, battling cancer, loss of loved ones. On another level, a lawyer may write a better courtroom drama (John Grisham), an underwater archaeologist may write a more insightful archaeological thriller (David Gibbins).

However, the bookshelves are filled with books about psychotic serial killers, murderers, rapists, racists, and all sorts of bad people. I would like to think that when Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter, he didn’t have any intimate knowledge about eating livers with fava beans and Chianti. Thousands of writers have written murder mysteries, Agatha Christie being one of the first that springs to mind. I doubt that any of those had bumped anyone off, though you never know. I’m sure that George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) is a great guy but if you went by what he’s written in his books, you wouldn’t believe a word he’d say and give him a wide berth when you saw him. And I won’t even mention Stephen “Here’s Johnny” King.

Writers rely on research and insight on human behaviour. Why was the woman so jealous of her brother that she killed him? How did she do it? Was she ever caught? Some authors might focus more on the psychological side, others on the CSI side, the criminals, the police, or the relatives’ point of view. Some authors may have better knowledge of medical examinations or pathology, police procedure or criminal physiology. But at the end of the day it’s all made up. None of them killed anybody.

It’s the characters who do all these things. Bad and good. It does not reflect on the author. She’s not evil for writing about a serial killer neither is she a saint when writing about a feel good book with nuns. Some times you hear the author’s voice in the narrative and sometimes you don’t. But the character should be the driving force. What they say, or don’t say is important. A marine that realizes he’s out of bullets during a battle would swear. He’d say “F***!”.He wouldn’t say “Oh, Sugar.” If he did then that would tell us something very important about the character. It would work only if it was intentional. But if it wasn’t that would destroy the whole scene.

Imagine it the other way round. An elderly respectable padre. If he dropped a candlestick on his toes you would expect him to say “Sugar!!” And if he swore then that says something about the character as well.

My advice to my friend was to write what she wanted in the way she felt it was right. You can right a beautiful story about fairies playing with children in a gingerbread garden and there’ll still be someone who’s offended for some reason or another. So dear fellow writer write what you think is right for the story. And if someone gets offended they get offended. It’s they’re prerogative. As it is yours to write it.

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The Importance of The 28th October

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Today is an important day in Greece. It signifies the beginning of the Second World War for Greece. It is also important for me as a writer, as the novel I am writing is set in Athens during the war; the Greco-Italian conflict and the occupation of Greece by the Germans (and Italians and Bulgarians). In fact Greece was the only country to be occupied by three forces.

 

On 28th October 1940, in the early hours of the morning, the Greek prime minister, Ioannis Metaxas, received a visit from the Italian ambassador Grazzi delivering an ultimatum and demanding the occupation of Greek territory by Italian forces. Metaxas refused, and that refusal was summed up with the word “Oxi!” (“No!”), which was an inspiration for the people and the fighting troops, and is remembered to this day.

 

I don’t want this post to become a historical essay, although I could easily write one having done a lot of research on this period for my book. Greeks know about this day and we assume that people know what happened. Friends from other nationalities know what happened in their own countries. But, as I was researching for my book, a number of surprising things came out.

 

My non-Greek friends had little or no idea what happened in Greece during WW2. People didn’t know about the Greco-Italian war, the battle of Crete, and mostly people didn’t know anything about life during the occupation. For example most non-Greek people don’t know the Greek resistance. Or about the famine, especially the Great Famine of the winter of 1941- 1942. This is one of the reasons that I wanted to write a novel covering this period, to show what the war was like for the Greek people.

 

The other thing that amazed me was that the Greeks themselves either don’t know about certain things, or are slowly forgetting. There is a reason for this.

 

While the war ended and most countries went into a phase of rebuilding, Greece entered a period of bitter civil war. The effects rippled through the decades and, even after 70 years, opinions are still very strong about issues relating to the civil war. People on the losing side (the communist party) suffered decades of persecution (including long stints of exile in remote islands) and naturally were reluctant to talk about their part in the resistance or partisans. The above is a very brief and simplified summary of the events.

 

However, only now are elderly people coming forward with stories of their participation in the resistance. In enquiring of family members and friends about their memories from the period, or for the younger folk, if they remembered anything their grandparents may have said, some incredible things came out.

 

I found out about people on both sides of my family. One great aunt had gone to the mountains and fought as a partisan. My mother’s side was full of stories about resistance. A great uncle was arrested by the Gestapo and another was sent to Auschwitz (for his part in the resistance). Fortunately, he made it back. Millions of others didn’t.

 

I asked friends about their grandparents, and tales of fighting on the Albanian front, the hard return when the front collapsed (many had to walk hundreds of miles to return home), and brushes with death and hunger in every day life came to light.

 

I visited museums and places of historic memory. When I talked with the staff more tales emerged. People in their nineties came to visit and sometimes told stories associated with the site. One of the most potent stories was when I visited the war time site of the Athens Kommandature. http://www.korai4.gr/

 

The basement was used as a holding center where unfortunate persons were held before being sent to concentration camps, work camps, or being executed at the Kesariani shooting range. The walls are covered in graffiti scratched by prisoners using keys or anything they could find. Many protested their innocence. They had been rounded up from the trolleys to be used as hostages. Others write about freedom, and about hanging on. One particularly harrowing graffiti says: “24 hours without food or water. Only the smell of jasmine.’’

 

One of the staff I talked to said that an elderly gentleman had come to visit a while ago. He came out of the site very moved. He told the staff that he’d been held there as a boy of seventeen. He had never returned until now. It turned out it was he who had written the graffiti about the smell of jasmine. The gentleman had never talked about his experiences to anyone before. Even his wife of children didn’t know. But now he agreed to give an interview with his testimonial as a piece of history.

 

If your grandparents are still alive please ask them about the period. I would be very interested to hear the story. If anyone has a story of the period, again I would very much like to hear about it.

 

It is important that we remember. Not only because our history is important, but also in remembering the suffering of the past we are able to appreciate the peace and tolerance of the time. By remembering war, we can celebrate peace. War is a terrible thing. By remembering how terrible we should do our best to never let it happen again.

 

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The Loneliness Of A Long Story Writer

I had a very interesting conversation with one of my writing group members the other day. I go to a writing group, because I think it’s like a writing gym; it keeps your writing muscles in shape. When I’m writing a story I find I tend to focus intensely on everything concerning that story. At the moment I’m writing a historic novel, so I’m researching the period, thinking about the characters, and so on. But when I go to the writing group and do writing exercises, and chat to people, it allows me to get away for a moment from what I’m writing. For me it’s like looking too long at the same puzzle, and then taking a break to go away and look at something else for a little while. When you come back to the puzzle everything seems fresher, and things you were missing now jump out at you.

The other thing that writing group exercises have been known to do for me is to acquaint me better with the characters in my story; who they really are, what they are thinking, their motives for doing things, and how they change throughout the novel. There were a couple of exercises that got me thinking. Who is this person? Not just the basic character traits, but what kind of clothes and shoes would they wear? Do they get along with their family? What would they keep in a shoebox under their bed? Which photo would be framed in their living room? What’s in their handbag or their coat pocket? What would make them laugh? Cry? What is the secret from their past that they would never tell anybody? It doesn’t have to be a big, life-changing, earth-shattering thing. It could be that they wet their bed or that when they were eight they stole an apple from the neighbour’s tree. It might sound trivial when you’re in a hurry to get your story down, but I think it’s worth it in the long run, especially if you’re writing a novel length story. For a short story maybe you can give it a miss, but it’s always good to know your characters. I feel that having insights into their actions, why they do things, why they are how they are, gives an extra layer to the story.

Writing groups have other advantages too. It helps with meeting people, having nice conversations, being sociable in general and to not go cabin fever crazy in your little office. Writing is a lonely pursuit. In other professions you interact with other people, go to the office, see colleagues and clients, have a change of scenery. But the writer is destined to work alone. Even if you are a person who writes in coffee shops or your local library, you’re still effectively alone when you’re writing. I have been known to go to coffee shops to write, but I do the bulk of my writing at home. Not only because I like my little office. I have my rituals when writing. I like to drink from my super-sized mug of tea or coffee and listen to music. It helps me go into the “zone”. I’m more like a truck than a sports car. I take a while to go up all the gears to get to writing speed but I do get there. I’m sure other people have other things they like to do. I’d love to hear about it. What do you think helps you write? Do you have any little rituals before, during, or after writing? Do you prefer writing at home or somewhere else?

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This blog is about my life as a writer. Or trying to be one. If you are looking about advice on how to write, techniques, characterization and such, there are plenty of other excellent blogs out there that might advise you far better. You might find a few bits here and there about these things but this is mostly about the life, trials, and tribulations of someone who is trying to make it as a writer. If this is something that appeals to you dear reader, then read on.

 You may find that you are not the only person in the world facing these same problems. When the story refuses to speak to you, when your characters do things that were not in the script, when you have ideas and no time, or time and no ideas, or no time and no ideas…you get the picture. I leave out the perfect situation of having time and ideas. If you are like most authors you will open your pc, or notebook if you prefer longhand, and then remember that you have to do the washing, ironing, tidy the house, pick up the kids, or wash the dog. It’s called avoidance and we’ll talk about it in the future.

But for now, this is just me trying to get people to read the blog, and to chronicle the life of an author, how I write, the problems, the small triumphs (few and far between, but none the less…), writing a story from the beginning, hopefully to the end. The submission, when you send it out to seek its fortune and hope for the best. If you’re lucky you might get an acceptance letter. At the moment I’m getting the other kind of e-mails. The ones that start with “Thank you for your submission.” But, I’d like to think that we are in good company. J.K. Rowling got lots of rejection letters. So did James Paterson, George- Game of Thrones-Martin and Stephen-the legend-King. I just like to think that we are in good company.

A few things about me. I have recently finished a PhD in business, and after that experience I have decided that now is the time to pursue my dream of being a writer. It was now or never really, so I have given myself a specific length of time to try and make it. By making it I mean completing and publishing a novel. But I do also write short stories, so there will be discussions and anecdotes about them as well.

So, dear reader, would you like to join me on this journey? If yes climb aboard, we are about to sail. We are about to set off to a far away land. A strange land, but one full of mysteries and wonders. And thank you for reading this and joining me on the journey. If not, thank you for reading anyway.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin…      

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