Learning from other writers

A few days ago I mentioned Ben East’s excellent interview in The National with Fiona Mozley, the author of Elmet. Learning about another writer’s sources of inspiration is always helpful and enlightening. Here we learn that Mozley saw Elmet as a ‘Yorkshire western.’ She saw parallels between her story of a land dispute in England and the ‘traditional arc of a western.’ To identify this arc, she drew upon films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven.

Once upon a time in the West

These kinds of western battles and the showdowns go back through cinematic history to movies like High Noon, Shane and The Magnificent Seven, but also to films like The Seven Samurai.Seven SamuraiTheme

In our workshop, when discussing story ideas, I often ask participants. ‘What’s it about?’ Mozley answers this question in the article: ‘ the question of the individual versus society; how people battle the natural world and their landscape.’

We don’t really know what we are writing until we discover our themes. Do you know yours?

Making words count

Cinema or television, then, can be one source of inspiration. Another is, of course, other books. Mozley tells us she has drawn inspiration from southern American gothic literature and, in particular, the work of Cormac McCarthy, from books such as No Country for Old Men and The Road.

The Road2

Her close reading of McCarthy ties in – rather spookily – with what I had planned for our workshop this week. A few words of explanation about this directly from Mozley: ‘McCarthy made me think about every single sentence, how I needed to make every word count.”

Last week we discussed ‘overwriting’ and ‘redundancy,’ abundant examples of which we can find in our own first drafts. The purpose of re-writing is to remove what is not needed and ‘make every word count.’

So, when you lift your fingers from the keyboard and say, ‘It’s done!’ what happens next?

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Writing Rules

Elmet, the novel by Fiona Mozley shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was not a priority on my reading list. Ben East’s interview with the author, published in Sunday’s edition of The National turned that around. Sometimes it happens that something you read resonates with you, as it did with me on this occasion. That something was to do with Fiona Mozley’s beliefs about writing.

Elmet cover

About rules

In our workshop, we often discuss the ‘rules’ that are put about on the subject of writing. My belief is that we have to know what those rules are … before we set about breaking them to suit our purpose. Rules become myths, and this interview with Fiona Mozley gently explodes one myth, which is ‘write what you know.’

Staring out of a train window while travelling from London to York, Mozley spied ‘a collection of caravans and shanty-like structures,’ and seeing these triggered, in her words, “a sense of wanting to explore something I didn’t know about, people who were very different from me.”

On writing what you know

If you don’t know what to write about, then writing what you know might be a good place to start. I’d say go ahead and write what you know when other people know nothing about that subject. You write. We read and understand. But, what if you wrote about something you didn’t know?

This makes me think of a workshop I attended one year at the Emirates Lit Fest. The subject was ‘Writing historical fiction’ and the participants were a mixture of fiction writers who knew very little about history (like me, for example), and historians who knew very little about writing fiction. A brilliant session in which we all learned a great deal. Then, one of the historians put up her hand and asked, ‘So, if we are writing about an historical figure and there are gaps in our research, and we don’t know what actually happened, what happens then?’ The fiction writers gasped.

We all knew that when you don’t know something … you make it up.