Monday, 19 May 2014

Creating a sense of the time

"The Pooles, too, were very deliberately leaving the provinces, making themselves metropolitan. They had left almost everything behind - the three-piece suite, the Wilton carpets, the glass-fronted bookcases, the family silver. Elinor Poole said to Alexander that the exciting thing was that the flat was flat, the rooms, all in a row, just rooms. You could sleep or eat or work in any or all of them. They furnished it with fitted cord carpets in silver and greys, with white paint, geometrically patterned curtains. Carpenters fitted streamlined shelves and cupboards. The children had bright Finnish blankets, scarlet, blue, yellow. They put up a Ben Nicholson print, a Matisse poster ... Elinor grew her yoghurt in a white bowl with a beaded muslin cover: these where days when the English had not in general seen any yoghurt, let alone taken to having it delivered in sterile painted plastic pots." Still Life, AS Byatt
One of my favourite aspects of AS Byatt's quartet is her close attention to its period. Writing just a few decades after the time it's set, she is as meticulous about its period detail as if she were writing a historical novel. In the Story Elements course, we explore how giving a premise a strong sense of time, and reshaping it to its era, can turn a flimsy idea into a powerful story. We take a single idea and each pair adapts it to a different period, to produce several different and far stronger stories. A premise about a nurse who heals by non-medical means and gets engaged becomes a Victorian suffragette's battle to keep her job after marriage and insistence that "old wives' remedies" do work, a 1960s nurse's secret introduction of psychotherapy and talking cures into a hospital for traumatised Vietnam vets, a young flapper, a sangoma in the Boer War...

The pleasure of a strong sense of time is the rich texture it creates. A sense of time permeates everything and every detail can evoke the period. What food do they eat? (Remember those ubiquitous parsley garnishes of the 1980s? The sudden profusion of rocket and balamic in the 90s?) What colours predominate? What do they clean themselves and their houses with, what products do they buy? (Anyone remember the harsh green fairy soap?) What were their names? What about their slang, their jobs, their homes, their furniture, their music? What was completely new and what did they want to leave behind in the past? But the sense of time goes beyond the textural, sensory world of objects. It's ingrained in their views, their assumptions, their expectations.

You can enrich your sense of your story's time in multiple ways - here are a few of my favourite starting points and techniques:
  • online research: I have a list of useful websites for historical research, from the quirky to the comprehensive, covering a range of aspects of time. (It's an ever-growing list, so if you have a great site you can suggest, please tell me in the comments and I can add it.)
  • time-capsule boxes: Many local museums are starting to create these (especially as they've proved useful in managing dementia). See what your museum has to offer so you can physically rifle through the past.
  • books written at the time: Books written about a period are useful, but books written in the period will give you a much stronger sense of the time, especially the attitudes and assumptions, without the lens of looking backwards
  • go further backwards and work forwards: Jumping back from your current time to the period gives you a backward-looking perspective, but that's not how any of us actually live: our time is the most modern, not an exercise in nostalgia, and we're moving forwards. To help get a forward-looking perspective, jump to a few decades before your story's set, immerse yourself in that, and then work your way through to the time it's set.

When we're doing research in class, I get my students to do their initial research before I give them the story idea. It seems counter-intuitive, but it works better: they explore the time more open-mindedly, without zeroing in on the exact details around the story. The time comes first, with its own priorities and issues, and then the story gets nested within that.

I also regularly issue research health warnings. Research can expand to fill the time you give it. It's surprising how much you can do in twenty minutes and how little you can do in a whole day. If you're feeling nervous about writing something, there's no better writing-avoidance-behaviour than convincing yourself you need to research every single detail before you can write a single sentence. You might spend half an hour tracking down the right brand of soap, only to write the scene without including the soap. It's a fine balance, but sometimes you need to stop researching and just write, or you destroy all your flow. Use [square brackets] for details you need to check later, or jot down a list of things to look up, and keep writing.

For prompts and more suggestions on playing with time, read these posts on time. Happy writing!

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