If a writer wants to keep their sanity, it’s best to enjoy the process of creating stories, at the very least. How you cope with editing and querying literary agents is another matter.
At the moment, I’m preparing to enter the fray of social media posting and will be running two blogs—one on writing and publishing, the other more of a static website for my Cornish Detective series of novels. The first quarter of the year was eaten up with querying and editing posts I’ve made on TheColonyin the last four years, which I’ll use as a basis for this Paul Pens blog.
It was repetitive work, but to provide some thrills, I began a short story that’s ballooned into a novella. I did little preparation for where the plot would go, simply starting with the premise of a widow observing an unknown male stranger dancing naked in a field on a summer day. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, but I’ve never begun a story before without any structure at all. I feel a bit like a bird returning to its nest, from time to time, as I add some more chapters. I may be travelling hopefully, with no destination in mind, but I love the journey.
As Anita Brookner admitted:You never know what you will learn ’til you start writing. Then you discover truths you never knew existed.
That’s what I’m finding, as I add to my novella, that is branching out in unexpected directions. While preoccupied with learning about themes, plug-ins, categories, posts and pages on my WordPress blog, I’m delighted that the creative part of my brain is quietly working away, gently nudging me with suggestions for my neglected tale of a hedge witch meeting a paranoid man with arcane knowledge that he won’t admit to.
Stories can be lifebuoys in the maelstrom of life—both in the reading and writing of them.
Recently, I read Leonard Cohen’s Stranger Music, which compiles many of his published poems and song lyrics. I liked this poem about the creative process, which gels with how I feel about why I’m writing:
The Only Poem
This is the only poem I can read I am the only one can write it I didn’t kill myself when things went wrong I didn’t turn to drugs or teaching I tried to sleep but when I couldn’t sleep I learned to write I learned to write what might be read on nights like this by one like me
If you’re not writing for yourself it won’t ring true.
In real life, it’s sometimes true love and the one that got away, which inspires great writing. John Keats immortalised Fanny Brawne, in love letters and sonnets. Shakespeare often referred to a ‘Dark Lady’ and a ‘Fair Youth’ in 154 love sonnets, who are thought to be a noted prostitute of the time, and a gay lover, meaning the bard was bisexual.
Scott Fitzgerald used his wife Zelda as the basis for several characters, also nicking parts of her diary to use in his novels! W. B. Yeats’ poetry is full of unrequited love for Maud Gonne. The main characters of Pride and Prejudice are based on Jane Austen’s affair with Tom Lefroy, a lawyer who went on to become a politician and Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.
More recently, Bob Dylan was inspired by his wife Sara Lowndes, penning one of his best albumsBlood On The Tracks when they broke up.
Leonard Cohen died in 2016, but aware of his own frail health, wrote a moving farewell to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen—who inspired the songsSo Long, Marianne and Bird On A Wire.
There’s a strange form of sexism when it comes to muses, for male writers are said to be inspired by the women they loved as if something in their psyche is reflected by the liaison, whereas few female writers are identified as having their work lifted up by the men they gave their hearts to.
I’ve dedicated several love poems to old girlfriends, who inspired happy memories. A recurring character in my Cornish Detective novels is an American photographer, called Mish Stewart, who is based on my camera-toting friend of the same name—with her permission.
While in the early stages of writing the last book in the series, which is set in the art colony of Saint Ives, Lizzy, a friend in Birkenhead unexpectedly sent me some art books. One was about an Austrian-New Zealand painter called Hundertwasser, who was new to me, but whose colourful paintings were ideal for my plot. I dedicated the story to my friend Lizzy.
Who has been your muse?
Have you dedicated any stories to loved ones?
Do you have any famous writers’ portraits on your wall, to act as inspiration?
We all have scars—external and visible on the skin—and internal damage that we keep hidden, but which actually has more of a profound effect on our characters.
Scars on the skin can become conversation pieces, especially between new lovers. An intimidating facial scar on a rough face warns adversaries away, with an unspoken message of surviving suffering.
The world’s first billionaire author created a protagonist with a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead.
To be a writer, Stephen King said, “The only requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”Tapping into your own scars is a useful technique for unlocking the scars in your characters.
Scarring can be done deliberately…for ornamentation and as a badge of honour. These days, tattooing is common, and those with body scars sometimes opt for concealing the damage with ink. I knew a woman who had no interest in tattoos until she had a double mastectomy. Reconstructive surgery gave her breasts again, but an elaborate floral design helped her move forward with her new shape.
In some ways, we’re becoming more tribal in our attitude to symbols, with extreme body modifications that tap into primitive roots. Raised scarring of the skin in which the bulbous cicatrices and gouged depressions form a pattern are not for everyone, but many folk pierce their ears for earrings and some have their lobes tunnelled to contain a large plug.
Going back to the 19th-century, duelling scars were viewed as proof of manhood, with some wanabees faking their sword fighting experience by slashing their cheeks with cutthroat razors.
There’s a poem about scars, which looks at them in an unusual way. Written by Jane Hirshfield. For What Binds Us contemplates healed wounds as being a stronger union than a ‘simple, untested surface.’
For What Binds Us
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
as all flesh
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest-
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
The protagonist in my Cornish Detective series is about to turn 50. In the last book, he’s fallen in love, but is then brought crashing to earth by being stabbed through his side with a sword stick blade. Obviously, this will leave pronounced scarring, and he’ll have damage to his hand—from gripping the blade to prevent it being withdrawn and used again as he flounders on the floor trying to take out his extendable baton to strike back.
The attack will also alter his nature, making him less trusting and more aggressive. His character was shaped by losing his parents as a teenager, emotional scarring that gave him resilience. In this way, I used a common trope in fiction…just think of the number of main characters who are orphans in literature and film; they’re vulnerable with a great capacity for growth. (Harry Potter shows his scarred face again.)
Another emotional scar came from losing his beloved wife in a traffic accident, two years before Book 1, which sent him into a couple of years of depression. Living with the black dog and counselling gave my protagonist more self-knowledge than many fictional detectives. Previous physical injury from falling off a motorcycle as a teenager, then being kicked by a suspect during an arrest, left him with a weak back—an internal scar, which he treats with Shiatsu massage sessions.
In my fourth Cornish Detective novel, Sin Killers, I used a heavily scarred character, who I based on a career criminal that I only saw a couple of times when I was a youthful dispatch rider in London. A veteran of Kray twins gang wars in the 1960s, he had a malign presence. A handsome man, if you only saw one side of his face, the other side was a gridwork of scarring…including a divot through his eyebrow and onto the cheek from a hatchet blow, which had darkened his iris to near black. My fictional henchman has a heavily scarred face, and he’s still a violent man, but he’s aware of increasing fragility from ageing and wants to retire to live aboard a boat on the river surrounded by nature. Outside he looks like death, inside he’s a naturalist who prefers wildlife to people.
Any scar is a memento of where we’ve been, but it needn’t affect where we’re going.
How do your characters handle their scars—internal and external?