Friday, May 19, 2017

Researching for your book

As part of the research I undertook for writing my memoir, I travelled back to South Africa in 2007, for the first time in 29 years. The awful apartheid was gone (although many remnants remain).  Everything had changed.
But the land was still the same …. or was it?  The rural area outside Cape Town where we’d lived for 9 months, on 8 acres of bush near a pig farm – that was gone, now buried beneath a shanty town a million strong called Khayelitsha.  Table Mountain and the mountain range joining it called the Twelve Apostles was still there and the glorious coastline with golden beaches and sparkling ocean. No more 'whites only' beaches, open to all of South Africa's 'rainbow nation'. 
But oh no! The lovely near-deserted, empty beach called Hout Bay surrounded by wooded hills, with a small docks area for fishing boats, a place where we’d go braai (bbq) in the sand dunes and help haul in the smaller fishing boats?  What had happened here?  Another shanty town had built into the once rural woody hills around the beach, teeming with people. On the far side of the beach, a large modern complex of shops had been built including a huge Pick n Pay – that South African supermarket chain – to meet the demands of all these people, these Cape mixed race people – many of whom were now white-collar workers in Cape Town.
Never go back they say, never go back, but if you’re a memoir writer sometimes you have to.  Just be warned.  Nothing will be the same.  Someone said to me the other day, about memoir writing – ‘People choose the memories they want to focus on, the ones that relate to who they are now.’  I don’t know about that.  All I know is that if you're writing memoir,  be careful when you go back.  Hold on to the memories of how it was. Hold those memories close to your heart.  Because the present will trample all over them and kick your past to dust if you’re not very careful.


My new 'how to'  book Writing Memoir, How to Tell a Story from Your Life will be out next month. 

If you want to buy my memoir A Hippopotamus At The Table it's on Amazon - click on the title to get the link.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Writing Memoir, How to Tell a Story from your Life - book preview

Writing Memoir
How to tell a Story from your life 

If you weren't able to join my course as its the wrong time and date for you, or you don't live in London, never fear, I'm about to publish a 'how to' book on the subject, in a few weeks time.

Here's a preview - an extract

Chapter One         What is memoir?

 This is a big question and much discussed by writers, readers and the literati. Here’s a working definition – it’s a part of your life, not the whole life.  The whole life is an autobiography.  A memoir could cover two weeks, two months, two years or even five years of your life.  Something happened to you in your chosen period of time that you want to write about.  Something different, possibly something dramatic.  May be it changed your life in some way.
As a memoir writer, I have often been told, ‘Why don’t you just tell your story as fiction – many writers do?  You avoid lots of problems that way.’ Many writers decide it’s the only way to tell their story – they can anonymise it and change the story around and fictionalise the characters involved.  That’s one option.
But I’ve always liked to read memoirs, because I enjoy reading stories that are ‘true’.  Often they are breathtakingly extraordinary. When you’ve had something interesting, dramatic or extraordinary happen in your life, you want to tell the true story, put it on record. These stories are often better than fiction because you know they’re real. You may feel (as I do), that you have a duty to tell some of your stories – if only for historical reference for those born after many of the events. My first memoir - A Hippopotamus at the Table was set in 1970s South Africa, the apartheid era.  What was it like to be there and observe that time? As an outsider? Those who read my book might find that out.
What other reasons are there to write memoir not fiction? Writing my own memoir gave me an insight into the many pitfalls and challenges of the genre. 

If you want to buy my memoir A Hippopotamus At The Table it's on Amazon - click on the title to get the link.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Here's a travel short story I did recently, set in Bangalore, India when I was there a couple of years ago.  I'm in Morocco at the moment - I get about, hey! More of that next time.

Breakfast in India.
I looked up and down the dusty street - it was hotting up.  The cooler early morning mist had lifted and the sun was beginning to burn. I was wearing a thin loose cotton shirt, over knee-length, tan cotton trousers, because as the day wore on, I couldn’t bear anything but loose cotton next to my skin. My cotton army surplus hat shaded my face and dark sunglasses kept the glare away from my eyes. Crate laden horse drawn carts vied on the two way street with beat-up cars, vans, a few SUVs and bright yellow tuk-tuks, their tourist passengers hanging on grimly as they swerved through the traffic. I knew how it felt - like one more swerve and you’d tumble out from the wide open sides.  Horns honked and blasted, men shouted, crates rattled. India is rarely quiet and in the towns and cities it’s a mad cacophony of constant noise.

I went to cross the road and jumped back to avoid the large milky-brown cow,with long curved horns, that I hadn’t seen emerging from behind a van. Sacred cows wandered the streets and traffic untouched and whether you were a pedestrian or vehicle they’re another hazard to watch out for.

 I could see the street stall on the corner.  He sold fried eggs and chapatti.  He was fat, brown and smiley, wearing a grubby white vest that he wiped his hands on here and there. I could see him breaking an egg onto the hot, round griddle in front of him and pouring some floury white mix like a pancake, beside it. He spread the chapatti mix as thin as paper on the griddle and then expertly he flipped it over to brown the other side. Then the egg – breaking the yoke and swirling it with his spatula and flipping that over too.  A thin man wearing a blue and white dhoti and green shirt was waiting patiently.  I approached – I love Indian food, but the thought of another dhal curry and rice for breakfast – again …. I stepped over a big round splat of cow dung on the road side – you didn’t want to tread on one of those in sandals or you’d be watching the rich brown dung squirting in between your toes – and the aroma – phew!

I nodded to him and he nodded back – he knew what I wanted – I wanted that sizzling fried egg wrapped in a roti with the grease running down my bare arm as I bit into it –all for the equivalent of 25 pence. I could smell the hot chapati and egg being handed to the man in front of me, who was holding out a few rupees.  I smiled, as he broke MY egg and dumped a spoonful of the floury mix onto the hot plate which he was now spreading with his spatula. His face was impassive.  My turn I thought my eyes fixed on the griddle.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Emotional Rescue

‘.. I'll come to your emotional rescue,' as the Stones' song goes.  Sometimes our writing needs some emotional rescue - we tell a story but fail to include the emotions, the full spectrum of emotions that can bring life to your writing.  There's the basic list: love/hate; sad/happy; anger/calm; bored/excited; tired/energetic; powerful/powerless and all the variations on these.

If you're writing a scene, you can show emotions when you describe an interaction - between the character and yourself or someone else. A direct confrontation is easy to show as its 'out there', visible,  you can watch it unfold.  But not all confrontations are out in the open.  Some are under the surface, quite hidden, some are slow-burning.  How are you going to highlight/reveal them?

Sometimes the unfolding story can build emotion gradually, layer upon layer without having to be revealed directly. Or sometimes a few broad brush strokes are enough to point up the tension between two characters.  If you're writing memoir, you'll have intimate knowledge of the different emotions going on at various points of the story. Just remember to bring your own feelings and emotions in to play - not just those you observe in others if you really want to bring your scenes to life. And the sme applies to writing fiction, but in that case you are using imagination.  

 When I started writing my first memoir (many years ago) I thought I’d write the story as an observer, keep myself in the background.  Feedback in writer's groups was often '.... but we can't see you, we don't know what you're feeling.'  You can't just be an observer - it doesn't work, the writing doesn't come to life. You have to put yourself in there. It means you have to be vulnerable, that’s what I was avoiding in the early days of my writing. The best memoirs take you to the time and place - seeing the sights and colours, smelling the smells and the reader must be able to identify with the protagonist in the story through revelation of the feelings.  You can't if you portray yourself as a cardboard cut-out.

Shut your eyes and immerse yourself in the scene you're describing - what are you feeling now and now and now?   I'm writing my second memoir and before I start writing I always think I can't remember - but I start writing and it's like a trigger - I can close my eyes and see what's happening unfold, I can picture the room or scene I'm starting to describe, smell the smells, breathe the hot dusty air and feel my fear at what I'm having to deal with. Then I'm away, I get excited and the words fall over themselves to come out, to describe what I'm seeing and feeling.  The trick is to bring all that on to the page, including your emotions.