A Time and a Place for your Story

A Time and a Place for your Story

There is a tendency among critics to find fault with writers who follow a trend, or try to make their work more saleable by linking it to events in the past. The obvious example this year is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the positive flood of articles and books appearing now.

I don’t have a problem with linking one’s work to a happening in the past. It can be extremely effective, provided that the writer has something original to say.

I came to book authorship by way of freelance journalism, which of course depends on current events and in a thin time, looks back at past happenings that may link with the happenings of today. For several years I wrote for an Irish sporting newspaper about horses – breeding, show-jumping, etc. Occasionally the editor of the racing section asked me for a piece about racing or breeding, usually leaving it to me to decide what to write. I hadn’t much time to think about it, as the reason he asked me was that frost or rain had forced the cancellation of a race meeting and he was faced with ‘blank page syndrome.’ Or perhaps a regular contributor was late with his piece, owing to illness.

In those days there was no email and no FAX. I would have maybe twelve hours to deliver 1,000 or 15,000 words to Dublin. I would write my piece, take it five miles to the nearest town and give it to the guard on the Dublin train. The train would be met by a junior journalist with a bicycle and rushed to the office.

In 1984, the editor was faced with a missing article on Derby day. He rang up at the last second. ‘Write something – no, I don’t know what – anything! 800 words.’ He hung up. My mind was a blank, so I looked in a racing book and discovered that a hundred years earlier the Epsom Derby had resulted in a dead heat. So I wrote about ‘The Derby a Hundred Years ago.’ It was a success and I wrote many more articles along those lines.

Deciding what to write was almost as hard as the complicated delivery. It taught me to keep cool, to write a list of ideas ready to use and, of course, to stick to the style of the paper. When I began writing short stories and later, novels, I found these experiences most helpful. I had learned a kind of mental discipline that the writing courses don’t teach, or not in my experience. I learned to make my work more interesting by giving it a background connected with a certain date or event.

Of course, if you write for magazines, you expect your articles to be seasonal, or to tie in with events. You have to learn when to submit a Christmas themed piece, or something summery. You find out how many weeks ahead your piece will be needed. Discipline is no bad thing in writing. It makes life a lot easier. Being punctual and reliable makes your editor value you and, when you are offering a book to a publisher the same rules apply. After my first novel appeared, my next three books were commissioned and my experience working with the press was enormously helpful. I delivered what I had agreed on within the time frame suggested.

If you plan to write a historical novel, having decided on the period you want to write about, even if it is a fairly lightweight offering, do research the period thoroughly and find out what happened when. You may find something different and interesting to introduce into your book. Don’t forget there are hundreds of thousands of historical novels out there and you need yours to stand out. I don’t mean obvious happenings like the battle of Waterloo. It might concern a new invention or a law with far reaching effects. Check social histories and if you plan your book within the last century, read magazines of the time. Research other countries as well as your own. I have done this and found it enormously helped in plotting a novel.

© Marjorie Quarton 2014

Marjorie’s book, Part-Time Writer: Notes and Reflections published in 2009 by the Lilliput Press, Dublin, is available in paperback and on Kindle from the principal distributors.

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