Think of a magic trick: a coin appears from mid-air; a rabbit hops out of a black top hat; the magician pulls your chosen playing card from the pack. The items appear as if conjured, yet the rational side of you knows the magician had those things hidden away all along.
The same applies to much of the writing process. Stories quietly develop in the recesses of our mind and then pop to the front as an idea, and we think: ah, yes, that’s it! When it comes to characters they appear, as if by magic, as fully formed human beings (or at least they do to me). They are the rabbit in the hat, hopping out of our heads and onto the page and very often we have no idea how the hell we’ve done it.
This was true for Connie Lithgow, the central character in my new novel, Don’t Say A Word. One of Connie’s defining features is her mutism. The shock of witnessing her parents’ death at aged five robbed her of her speech. The lack of treatment and understanding from those left to raise her meant she never fully recovered. At the start of the novel, Connie is rushed to hospital after attempting suicide at her dying husband’s bedside, and it’s left to her daughter and her friend to unlock her silent prison before it’s too late. But it was down to me to understand this character and bring her to life for the reader.
Connie’s mutism was innate from the start. So too was her resilience, determination, loyalty and an underlying, burning frustration. What was less clear was why she had these traits; I had to rework the magic trick in reverse and unpick this woman to her bare-bones and backstory.
A bit of method-research was required.
The best way to get into Connie’s head, I thought, would be to live with mutism myself. Self-Imposed mutism. The first weekend that my children were at their dad’s I got down to it. I wouldn’t speak for the entire weekend.
It was bloody brilliant. Peaceful and stress-free. I thought about the silent weekend retreats my friend Heidi favours, and I finally understood the appeal. Silence really can be golden.
It was as I came to the end of the weekend that I realised my mistake. I had chosen not to speak; it hadn’t been imposed. I had spent the weekend on my own, writing my book and taking breaks for yoga and coffee. The reason mutism hadn’t been an issue is because I hadn’t put myself into any situations where it would be an issue. My experience was false.
The next weekend I had alone I changed tac. I decided not to write at all, but to live a bit. I went to the cinema, food shopping, took myself out for lunch. The experience was entirely different. The people I met were eager to help and always polite, but I was treated like a child; spoken down to in simple language, voices were raised even though I signalled that my hearing was unaffected. I used a notebook to communicate and the people I wrote to adopted looks of patronising patience. The sense of being misunderstood and underestimated was frequent.
By the end of the weekend, I was intensely frustrated. Whereas previously, I enjoyed the isolation of cutting myself off from the world; this time, I wanted to lock myself away because it felt easier, safer and less maddening.
The upside of this? I understood my protagonist. Communication is a vital part of our identity: threaten this and we not only affect our ability to interact; we transform the idea of how we are perceived and even who we are. Is there anything more isolating than feeling misunderstood and unknown?
Connie has become one of my favourite characters; I have a huge fondness and sense of protection for her. She may not be cuddly, soft or cute, but she’s the best rabbit I’ve ever pulled from my writerly hat.
Don't Say A Word is by Rebecca Tinnelly (Hodder & Stoughton)
Some family secrets demand to be told . . . Connie lost her words at the age of five, the day she witnessed her mother and father's untimely death. Since then she has been all but mute, only being able to choke out a few select words. Now, years on, Connie's husband is on his deathbed and all she can do is quietly sit by his side. But there are so many dreadful secrets locked up in Connie's silent prison. And time is running out to set them free . . .