Okay, we’ve all done it. It may be that there’s a deadline looming; it may be that you’ve hit a problem with your work-in-progress, or it may simply be that you need to be getting on with your novel. You’ve spent days clearing outstanding work and emails and now you finally have some time. Do you go straight to your desk and make a start? No, you clean out the fridge, de-scale the kettle or de-flea the cat. In the spirit of understanding and support of my fellow writers, I’d like to share my seven top displacement activities – in no particular order – and offer suggestions as to how you can turn them into justifiable writerly endeavor:
1. Watching TV – the trick here is to be selective. Watch things that can feed your storytelling skills or give you ideas for characters. Watching films or TV dramas can not only give you ideas for stories, but can really help you learn how to show rather than tell. Note how characters’ actions, dialogue, and facial expressions show the audience what the characters are feeling. And some ‘reality’ shows – the ones that show ‘real’ reality rather than ‘Big Brother’ reality – are great for giving you character details. I favour ‘come dine with me’ for this purpose.
2. Looking on Rightmove – or is this just me? I love looking at houses we might be able to afford, and some that we definitely can’t. Or houses out in the country, or little tea shops, or B&Bs. The way to make this a legitimate activity is to turn it into research. Your characters live in houses, yes? And now and again you need to put in a bit of description so the reader can picture your character at home. Rightmove (www.rightmove.co.uk) is great because not only can you see the outside of the house, you can have a virtual poke around inside too, so simply find a photograph of a suitable room or garden and describe what you see. You can even describe the street your character lives in – simply click on ‘street view’.
3. Looking round the shops – use this to decide what sort of clothes your characters wear, what sort of food they buy, and maybe even what furniture or carpets they choose. Or you can try mooching around the charity shops – sometimes a used handbag or a worn pair of shoes can suggest things about a character that you’d never have thought of on your own. The bric-a-brac and books can be interesting too.
4. Going to your favourite coffee shop – well this is an obvious one, isn’t it? Take a notebook with you and people-watch! Notice what’s unusual about the people around you; there may be one tiny detail that snags your interest and forms the basis for a whole new character. I once developed a short story around a woman who wore slightly old fashioned clothes for her age, and whose child had a rather loud voice. The story became Day Tripper, which was broadcast on radio four.
5. Phoning a friend – I don’t mean just phone any old mate to catch up on the gossip; I mean phone a writing friend and use the call to discuss your work-in-progress. It’s a great way to resolve sticky problems in your writing. Sometimes, your friend may come up with a solution you hadn’t thought of, but often it’s simply that talking it through and bouncing ideas off another writer does the trick. You can then offer to be a sounding board for your writing friend, and once you’ve both got ideas about where to go next, then, and only then, you can catch up on the gossip.
6. Going for a walk – there’s something about the action of putting one foot in front of the other that seems to stimulate ideas. I often find that the solution to a problem with my work will just jump into my head while I’m walking, usually when I’m thinking about something completely different. I read about one writer who said that when she hits a problem, she goes walking and will not allow herself to return home until she’s solved that problem; she’s made it home before dark on all but one occasion! Even if you don’t have a problem to solve, a walk can still be productive. Try noticing things you don’t normally notice; look up at the tops of trees and the upper stories of buildings; look at the ground, notice the puddles, the weeds, the debris in the gutter. If you’ve ever taken a very young child for a walk, you’ll know how things we take utterly for granted – a snail, a dandelion clock, a broken umbrella shoved into a public bin – can be sources of wonder. Try to see things with a child’s eye for a change – it could bring a whole new dimension to your writing.
7. Flicking through a magazine – firstly, they’re good for stories, especially the ‘real life’ mags. Some people’s lives are absolutely packed with drama. The only downside is that some of these true stories are so bizarre that if you tried to fictionalise them, you ‘d struggle to make them believable! There are also great stories to be found in the letters pages, and especially the ‘problem page’. The other thing I sometimes use magazines for is to help me picture a character or a setting.. Having a picture in front of you can really help you describe someone’s hairstyle, tattoo or facial expression. Again ‘real’ people, rather than models or celebs are better for this, and I find the Sunday supplements particularly useful.
For more about me and my work, visit www.susanelliotwright.co.uk
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