Hazel McHaffie

sabbatical

Back in the saddle

How do you pick up the reins of novel-writing after a 6 months break? Hmmm. I don’t know. Never done it before. So, a new challenge this week.

I was 34,000 words into my latest novel by last October when my heart suddenly decided to throw tantrums and I got sidetracked by disability and hospital appointments and assorted treatments. The plot was pretty much decided, the principal characters fully formed. But there was one narrative thread that I’d only sketchily researched: a young father’s mysterious disappearance. How would his family react? How would they start to track him down? Would the police get involved? Would a private investigator take such a case? How complicated would the search be? Could he vanish without trace? What if it was actually a suicide? … … …

Victor’s disappearance has been lurking somewhere in the deep recesses of my drugged mind all these weeks; but I’ve been powerless to pursue him. Rust and moss have gathered; neurones slowed. Now, post successful treatment, might be the very time to drag these questions to the forefront and get down to the real process of untangling answers. Hopefully coaxing brain, hand and heart back into writerly routines in the process.

As a first step, a few months ago, I’d bought a book on the subject in the Howdunit Series: Missing Persons: A writer’s guide to finding the lost, the abducted and the escaped. It’s written by Fay Faron who, in real life, runs a detective agency in San Francisco. She’s the author of various manuals and columns on the subject, but has also penned a work of fiction herself – ideal credentials for my purpose, you’d think. She should know what I don’t know I need to know as well as knowing what I know I don’t know!

Howdunit text

Off I trotted into the sunshine to see what she could teach me for my novel. Well, come on. Don’t rush me out of the lolling life too quickly. Sudden shocks aren’t good for dodgy hearts, you know!

I’m soon immersed …

What a readable book, well-written, full of anecdotes and facts and humour. Nice short subsections, clearly signposted. Ideal. The trusty notepad is soon covered in scribbles; hints and tips to myself. Ideas to give my story depth and authenticity.

Then it’s hotfoot back to the computer to plug the notes in at relevant points in the text. Now all I have to do is re-read the preceding sections and off I go again. Writing! Ahhhh. Feels like coming home after a prison sentence. And – better still, I’ve acquired sufficient distance from my prose to be able to edit ruthlessly. I discard pet phrases with gay abandon, lose whole chunks of unnecessary material, and then get stuck into the next chapter. Hmmmmm. Not quite as speedy and fluent as I’d hoped, but, hey, it’s a start. I’m back in the saddle. First re-learn how to trot again. Next week’s soon enough to try a gallop.

 

, , , ,

Comments

A sabbatical?

My enforced inactivity continues as doctors try to find out why my heart is doing crazy things. Those who know me best recognise the potential frustration for someone used to living life at a hundred miles an hour, and they’ve been kindly plying me with distractions of various kinds, helping to keep me sane and functioning at some level.

West Wing DVDs

So, for example, a complete boxed set of the drama West Wing has kept me sitting down for countless hours. Plus it’s given me a new perspective on life at the top of politics in a country the size and structure of the USA. But it also includes fascinating glimpses into the world of … medical ethics no less! Everything from: should a president reveal that he has Multiple Sclerosis and is experiencing lapses in concentration? and should his doctor wife be allowed to treat him secretly? … to: what use could be made of evidence that praying for patients’ recovery influences outcomes? Issues of infant mortality, postcode lottery in medicine, autonomy and Alzheimer’s, confidentiality, jumping the queue for organ donation, medical capacity, assisted dying, mind control experimentation … they all become useful material in the hands of a skilled scriptwriter. This particular programme doesn’t follow through any of these issues as I would, (it makes no claim to do so) but that in itself is thought provoking.

Val McDermidWhen the dizzyness prevents me sitting up and watching a film, listening to something interesting beats lying idle feeling every erratic heartbeat. Radio 4’s Book of the Week last week was Val McDermid‘s Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime about which I wrote a couple of blog posts ago. Val herself reads this abridged version of her book and gives a fascinating glimpse into the way that the dead and the scenes of crimes speak. She takes the listener into houses devastated by fire or a shooting; she peers at the insects and poisons which tell their own story; she traces the life of history’s most prolific female serial killer, and the Sausage King of Chicago who tried to dispose of his wife’s body in the processing plant, as well as appalling miscarriages of justice. Snippets that really whet the appetite for more. And all told in her distinctive Scots voice.  Once again I’m hugely impressed by the depths to which this bestselling crime writer goes in order to authenticate her plots and the sheer scope of her knowledge. (Hurry if you want to hear these 15 minute excerpts – they’ll soon be unavailable.)

So this month of illness might well have wiped my diary free of appointments and activities but I’ve been learning valuable lessons: the art of simply being still, to value thinking, to make the best of my limited abilities. And hardest of all: patience. Maybe I should simply reconstruct the events of the last four weeks as a sabbatical as advocated in these tips for creative thinking.

 

, , , , , , ,

Comments