About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Creative Visualisation: Being There


Been spending a lot of time with this lady!
There has been a great deal in the news recently about something called ‘aphantasia’ or the inability to conjure up images inside your head. You can read all about it on the BBC Website here.

There is a whole spectrum of abilities, and people at one end of it can’t do it at all. I was intrigued to note that the late great Oliver Sachs was ‘face blind’ so that when shown, for example, a photograph of Oprah Winfrey, he had no idea who she was. Well, maybe not everyone does know who she is, but this was not a one off. A series of well known faces provoked a shrug and a shake of the head. There’s a whole section of the population who lead perfectly normal lives without being able to visualise things inside their heads. They know, they just can’t visually imagine.

It got me thinking, especially because I had just finished a draft of a rather complicated historical novel, so I was very much in creative writing mode. Most writers of fiction will know that alongside the perennial ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ question, (which makes a lot of sense to non-writers who are intrigued by it, but provokes a faint feeling of dismay in writers, who are generally drowning in unsolicited ideas), there’s the OTHER thing.

I used to think there was a gap but I think of it more as a yawning chasm between non-writers and writers in this respect, and now I know that the ability that creative writers tend to have in spades has a name: hyperphantasia. For most of us, it may be even more intense than that.

Let’s, for argument’s sake, call it super-hyperphantasia.

I suspect most writers of fiction are hyperphantasiacs (if that's even a word!) and if they aren’t, I’d lay bets they aren’t very good creative writers.

But the reports got me wondering if the scientists conducting this research have thought about ways in which writers and other creative people, artists for example, enter this state? To some extent you can summon it at will but I’m not entirely sure you can do it to somebody else’s specification. If you ask me to visualise pretty much anything, I will be able to see it quite clearly ‘in my mind’s eye’ – to the extent that I will be able to describe it for you. I have a strong visual imagination. Years as a playwright – where you always have to see what’s going to be happening and to whom, on stage or on film - have only reinforced it.

I once took part in an experiment in past life regression. It was intriguing, faintly disturbing, immensely vivid. I can still remember who I was, where I lived, how I was dressed, dozens of details. But I have a suspicion that the writer in me was simply inventing the character in response to a number of prompts from the person doing the regressing. Not that she gave me any of these details. She simply asked a series of questions. Where are you? How are you dressed? What are you doing? Where do you live? I knew all the answers, right down to the 'best' shoes that were almost too uncomfortable to wear. But this is exactly what I do when I'm writing.

I had a pair of shoes like this but only in my mind's eye.

I know that when the writing is going really well, it’s similarly intense and vivid. I’m truly elsewhere. I’m in the world of the book or story or play. Mihaly Csikszentmihalji called it a state of ‘flow’, and so it is. Time has no meaning. Then you suddenly come back into yourself and find that several hours have passed by and you have no remembrance of them. And that’s because your mind, your whole imagination has been somewhere else. The room may have grown dark or cold, and you’re hungry and thirsty, and often you feel quite ill and disorientated. Well, I certainly do.

You have been in the world of the book or story or play. You have been seeing it, feeling it, living it and experiencing the emotions of various characters – and for a while at least it doesn’t just feel as real as the ordinary world. It feels hyper real, a place beside which the ‘real world’ feels quite disappointing. You’ve been kind of playing God and sometimes you have the uneasy sense that we’re not really designed to do that. Which is why it takes its toll, why we feel so strange afterwards and so utterly bereft between projects.

Is it worth it? Well I think so. And if you can’t do it, you’ve no idea what you’re missing, literally, so you won’t mind. I’m not sure you can be taught how to do it, but I do think innate abilities can be honed and improved.

I’m often asked about dialogue. It’s hard to teach people how to write good dialogue. There are the usual hints and tips, such as reading it out loud, listening to what people say, how they really speak. But I think good dialogue only comes when you are in one of these states of being 'in the zone', because what you are then doing is not so much ‘making’ people say something as listening to your characters. Climbing inside their heads, overhearing them talk and writing it down – all at the same time. And it’s almost impossible to teach somebody how to do that if they can’t make that quantum leap into being there.

Somebody once said to me that the worlds inside her head were far more real, more vivid than the world outside. I’d identify with that. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I’m not at all sure it could be induced under controlled conditions. Writers of historical fiction have to do a lot of familiarising first, which is essentially what the research is for. It's like a secret agent being briefed before a mission. And then, armed with all that knowledge, you make the quantum leap into inner space.

Also, the experience is not without a few unwelcome side effects: rabid insomnia being one of them. The inner world has a habit of either invading your dreams – not so bad, because at least you’re sleeping - or prodding you awake several times a night, reminding you of its existence. Come back, it says.

And then your characters join in. 'We’re here. We have things to tell you. And no, we’re not going to shut up or go away until you give us the voices we think we deserve.'

If you want to sample a couple of my historical novels to see what happened when I made that leap into the past, you could try:
The Physic Garden
or
The Curiosity Cabinet
And look out for a new historical novel called The Jewel, to be published in 2016.

This post has been reblogged from Authors Electric.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Dreaming Jean, Seeing Jean

The Cottar's Saturday Night, Faed.
The other night, I woke up in the early hours of the morning, from a slightly restless sleep, to hear my husband - he had just been to the loo - coming back into the bedroom, and stopping with an exclamation of surprise. He got back into bed, muttering, 'No - it's OK,' and went back to sleep.
So did I.

Over breakfast I asked him what had been the matter. He has quite severe mobility problems and I wondered if he had tripped over something.
'No,' he said. 'I thought I saw somebody standing in the doorway. In fact just at first, I thought it was you, but then I realised it couldn't be, and besides, you were still in bed.'

What he thought he had seen - when he elaborated on it later in the day - was a woman in 'old fashioned dress'. He said it was exactly like the 'woman in the Lloyd's bank advert.'  And there she is, walking alongside the horse and plough, early in the ad.

Now we live in a very old terraced cottage - more than 200 years old. But not noticeably haunted. Our house has always had a lovely atmosphere, and still has. In fact it has had surprisingly few owners over its lifetime. People tend to stay here for a long time. People like us.

Jean in her forties.
But it got me thinking. Especially when I reviewed the ad and saw what my husband claims he saw! For the past couple of years I've been researching and writing a novel about the life of Jean Armour, beloved wife of Scottish poet Robert Burns. It has been a huge project for me, and one very dear to my heart, since I've already written a couple of plays about Burns that turned out to be quite as much about Jean.

The novel is scheduled for publication next spring. And I have become - not to put too fine a point on it - pretty much obsessed with Jean and her famous husband. The more I've found out about her, the more I've found to like about her. I think she's a heroine in a million.

I don't believe she's haunting me. And even if she was, she's such a lovely person that I wouldn't be very worried. But I do sometimes wonder if writers can focus so clearly on a character that they create what the Tibetans call a 'thought form' - when concentrated thought - and novelists do a whole lot of visualising and concentrating - takes shape in the material world.

Not that I saw her. It was my husband, who gave himself a surprise in the middle of the night! But then I didn't need to, because I see her pretty much all the time and every day at the moment, anyway. And the simplest explanation may well be the best one. Not so much a thought form as a thought transference. I'm so deep in love with Rab and Jean that I'm infecting my poor artist husband of thirty years with my imaginings now!