As part of the Ilkley literary festival, I attended a Fiction writing class run by the author and critic Michael Arditti. Although the emphasis was on fiction, there were still useful ideas and exercises that can be applied to family history writing.
Michael emphasised how lonely a writer’s life can be, and the importance of belonging to a supportive group [such as our own] , with people of similar aims and experience with whom you can workshop pieces and share ideas. In his opinion, this was at least as important [if not more so] than going on courses which tend to be expensive and are not always helpful.
We tried several writing exercises, which were worked on and developed over the course of the session. In the first, we were asked to write about a recent event that shocked or moved us. Then we were invited to imagine this same event but telling it from another person’s point of view. This is a useful exercise for WFH writers, as it is something we are often having to imagine.
Michael stressed the importance of building up a character in detail, not just what they looked like but their clothes, tastes, voice, habits and interests, etc. This is also key for WFH authors who are trying to make their ancestors appear vibrant and interesting. Any details about their personalities from many different sources such as letters, photos, personal memories etc help to make them more ‘real’ and convincing. He gave us a Character Outline form which covered about 30 different details, ranging from their physical features to their sins, virtues and obsessions. He said it was important not to judge your characters , and to remember that they can change and develop.
We were also exhorted to ‘kill your darlings!’ – meaning editing out your favourite parts if you find they do not work or fit properly. This is where someone else [a friendly critic or a critical friend] can help by reading your piece and offering constructive editorial advice.
The last exercise was to cut down the original piece to 100 words. Drastic – but sometimes we need to remember that ‘less is more’.
Finally, Michael urged us to keep writing!
I also attended a talk given by Michael Morpurgo at the Isle of Wight Literary festival [yes, it’s that Lit. Fest. time of year] which was very lively and entertaining. He summarised a good approach to novel writing as, ‘Make them laugh, make them cry – and keep them guessing.’ Good advice for us WFH writers too!