So I’m on the brink of setting pen to paper with The Body Orchard, a novel I’ve been threatening to write since … well, probably around the time that Britain joined the Common Market, or perhaps even longer ago .
Anyway, as it’s a rather complex thriller (essentially a ‘locked room mystery’ on a highly-secure military base), I’ve spent a goodly amount of time planning it all out – the relationships between the characters, the events, the forensic and investigative stuff – to the extent that I now know about 75% of what happens in it. Whilst I appreciate that going into it with every detail nailed down would probably be wisest, I’ve found that being immersed in the story often means that new possibilities become clear – I guess this is what people mean by ‘characters doing things I didn’t expect them to do’.
So I know the structure of the book, the main events and the general tone of it, but I’m finding myself pausing before I actually start the physical writing of it, because of uncertainty about one thing: the point of view from which I’m going to write.
As it’s a murder mystery, I’d like to write in the first person, so that the reader has the same information – and the same chances of solving it – as the detectives; the alternative, of course, is to write it in standard third-person omniscient narrator fashion, which would frankly be easier as it allows me to do cutaways to a knife being sharpened in a dark room (not actually a scene which appears in the story) or similar, to add some sense of foreboding and the like. However, I’m very much up for the challenge of writing a whole novel in first-person mode (something I’ve never done before), and the only real obstacle to me doing so is one very simple thing…
My main character is female.
Now, this was obviously a deliberate choice on my part, so it’s not something I can whinge about – and indeed I wouldn’t, as I’m really looking forward to writing about this character – but there was something that I heard (no, make that I was told) repeatedly when doing English at school, and then talking to people who were studying English Literature at college level, which is that male writers can’t write female characters. Not that they’re not very good at it, or that they tend to stereotype or whatever, but that they simply can’t do it.
Yes, I’d argue that this is a nonsense generalisation – and as much a heap of festering horse manure as the suggestion that female writers can’t write male characters (something I never heard with the same degree of frequency) – but unfortunately it slightly colours my thinking about writing (or approaching writing) an intelligent, capable female character in a way that’s actually more irritating than anything else.
I’m aware there’s a danger of making her into some kind of Lara Croft-meets-VI Warshawski character, or going too far in a contrary direction and making her into a cross between Bridget Jones and a member of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but in all honesty my approach to writing women has always been the same as writing men, as quite frankly I don’t think I have any more insight into the behaviour of other men than I have into women. Granted, I have more details about the functioning (or otherwise) of the equipment, but that’s about it.
Hmm, I think I’ve actually talked myself into writing the book from her point of view, which is good, as I think it serves the story best; and if I can write from the viewpoint of Heather Watson in a way that doesn’t drag the reader out of the story to any extent (either because of an inaccurate representation of how women [or, indeed, people in general] think and behave, or due to writing which is shoddy in some other regard), then I’ll consider I’ve done what I set out to do.
Y’know, I often remember that this blog isn’t just here for the things-that-look-a-bit-like-other-things in life, it’s also here for other stuff, like stuff about writing – and, of course, me venting about the nonsense I used to hear back in college about writing (much of which, I have come to realise, bears about as much relation to creation as trying to re-create the delights of a fine meal by eating a recipe book).
So, as dull as this post may have been for you, for me it’s been very useful, as it’s helped me decide on something which was holding me back from starting on The Body Orchard. If I hadn’t tried to express this uncertainty, I suspect that the book wouldn’t be started for a while yet – though hopefully not, as the post title above alludes to, when I’m sixty-four -waiting that long would probably not be an ideal way to go about becoming a paperback writer, as much as Mary Wesley’s life and work suggests it can be done.