Friday, 6 April 2012

Stories Long in the Making

In Britain, book shops with cafe tables in amongst the shelves were unheard of. Twenty one years old, I left and went to live in New York. Barnes and Noble was a marvel. I worked in a restaurant on Sixth Avenue, and every day, on my way back to the Gershwin Hotel, where I lived, I would call in at the enormous store between 22nd and 23rd and read from EMMA WHO SAVED MY LIFE. Sadly the store is now GONE  but the book is still a solid recommendation.
It was in the lovely store on UNION SQUARE, though, that I once saw a woman, so striking, that I had to write a description of her on a napkin.
That was my writing in those days, notes of description on napkins, and scraps torn from paper bags and waitress pads. Eventually I came back to the UK with my stack of descriptions and laboured to find a plot to cram them all in to (plot, oddly, was my biggest struggle in those days). I bought HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE IN 21 DAYS and from it learned the first nuts and bolts of story. I also, incidentally, produced a complete filmscript in 3 weeks, mainly at a table in the Rat and Parrot Park Street, Bristol, between shifts. How proud was I? It was rubbish.
Following on from that, I used the last of my New York restaurant tips to buy a second hand laptop, and used Microsoft Write to produce a short story called 'The Songbirds Egg', which I then recycled into a novel called 'The Cloud Ceiling.' Both of them heavily influenced by ROSAMUND LEHMAN and Lawrence Durrell's incomparable ALEXANDRIA QUARTET.
The stories were lumpily written, heavy on sentiment and awkwardly poetic description. But they had a character called Madeleine, and the description of her face, copied from the New York napkin, isn't bad.
It's not bad, and so, with so many of these things, it will be recycled into Lullaby of Lies. Most of the words I write have an awkward ancestry of some sort, but these - randomly - will be known. These lines will be pared down and will crop up in chapters nine and ten. Hopefully you'll read them there...

She is nineteen, preoccupied, a steep and selfless beauty.
Madeleine's hair is dark and as she talks swings, smooth as glass. The straight grain lightly crossed by paler, coppery strands in lazy half curves, like lines of water snaking across a car window.

Her skin is so pale and her features dark and finely drawn. Thick lashes and clear curving brows. Her face never blurred. Clean lines on white like crisp type on new paper, symmetry like the phrasing of verse.
Her eyes dark, lower lids heavy with strong vertical surface, into the vertical planes of her cheekbones. Lips restrained but tilted upward along the tiny seam between lip and face.

Fine half circles under each eye, and a crease along the middle of each lid. They make her eyes seem even larger, with an extra layer of focus. They make the light in the black ringed irises stronger through her gaze and the whole was even more beautiful.

Madeleine's hair flickered behind her and then twisted under her chin. Squinting, she tried to hold it away from her face. I gathered it in one hand and held it at the nape of her neck. She leant toward me and this was how the photograph was taken. Her hair was very cool, soft, straight as pouring water. 


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  2. Yep, that's a fantastic character description.
    Nice to hear more about how you got started writing. And is there a continent that you haven't visited?

  3. 'Heavy on sentiment'? I'm oddly intrigued. Interesting how fast our writing changes though, isn't it.