Monday, 30 July 2012

Is It You I’m Looking For?

Alison Bruce is the author of two non-fiction novels and four novels in her DC Goodhew series.  She has had a great love of music since her teens and this is reflected in her books.

When I first read a Harlan Coben book I knew I’d have to read more, I soon caught up with his backlist and for several years, I’ve been buying each new hardback on release.  Despite this obvious enthusiasm for his writing, I’d managed to miss seeing him at an event until this year’s Harrogate.

I have seen YouTube recordings of him being interviewed, and liked him, but there’s always that slight niggle that your favourite writer, musician or actor might not quite live up to expectations when you see them in the flesh.  Since I have no desire to clear the entire shelf that I have filled with copies of his books, I really was hoping for the best.  As it turned out I had absolutely nothing to worry about, Harlan Coben’s interview was moving in places, amusing in others and full of honest observations on his journey as an author. 

I could tell from the response of people nearby in the audience that there were anecdotes and experiences that struck a chord with many of them.  Other authors I spoke to later echoed this.  Harlan joked about needing a shrink at times, but since I identified with virtually all the emotions he spoke of I can only conclude that there’s a whole bunch of us with a similar strain of authoritus.  This was a hugely uplifting moment.  Of course I’m not looking to be cured, none of us are, but isn’t it fantastic when someone turns on the light and proves you’re not alone in the ward?

With all of this in mind I’ve decided to share one of my writing habits just to console any other writer out there who is doing the same thing and wondering whether they’ve strayed a few mouse clicks beyond balanced.

I have a habit of having quite a few characters in my books, real life’s like that and it’s the way I develop a story but I realised when I wrote the second Goodhew novel that I needed to be able to create characters that were distinctive fairly quickly.  On one handwriting about a character is the best way to make that character more rounded, on the other hand a character that is well developed before I begin is less likely to manoeuvre me into dead ends.  Therefore, for every character that is more than a cameo I write his or her back-story, detailing physical attributes, motivations, personality traits etc. 

Nothing weird so far.

But then, when I have a feeling that I know them well enough to be able to recognise them I go on the internet and look for a photo of them.  I often start by Googling their character name, amazing how many times the right name throws up the right kind of pictures.  A Ben for example is very often a relatively young man, often the gentle giant type, quirky, humorous and bright.  Likes a pint.

Of course, there are plenty of Bens not like this, and sometimes I find my perfect Ben amongst Ben’s mates, or his sister’s auntie’s colleague’s mates.  Google images and Facebook are top hunting grounds.  Nowadays I rarely go through friend’s pictures; instead, I scoot through the profile pages of complete strangers and grab anyone who has just what it takes to make it onto the casting couch.

When I have my selection, usually a passport sized photo of each character, I print out organisation charts.  They can be family trees, or in the case of The Silence, the relationships between inhabitants of a student house, or in The Calling pictures of the victims.  I Blu-tac them to the wall above my desk and cross them out with a Sharpie if they do not make it to the end of the current chapter I am writing. 

Sometimes it will take me several hours to find the right Ben; I want to be able to see hints of all the facets I have identified in that one picture.  I no longer need to refer back to my notes on hair colour and style or set of the jaw, angle of the nose and so on.  Or worst still be tempted to trust my memory.  One glance at my wall and they are pinned down, just the way a character needs to be.

Mostly it works brilliantly, although my stepdaughter came home from uni to see one of her flat mates crossed out.  That was when I decided it might be healthier to stick to strangers.

If you haven’t tried this method I recommend it, for me it helps my characters come alive… apart from the ones that end up dead.

Who else does it like this…?  Or is it just me?

More information about Alison and her books can be found here.


Hannah Dennison said...

I'm so happy to find you are in the ward, too!
A great post and some terrific tips - I also look for images on the Internet but I hadn't thought to mine Facebook yet.

Dougie Brimson said...

I do almost exactly the same thing but I take it a step further as I only use people I know or celebrity sorts to fit my characters.

That way, if I become stuck at all I can simply search them out on YouTube or better still, call them up for a chat. Often, simply hearing their voice will solve my problem.

I'm not sure it would work for everyone but it certainly works for me!