Tulip Fever

This month I was going to make a thoughtful post/papal address – something topical on slow writing, or productivity, or how to crochet a big gay rug for lockdown dance parties in your big gay commune. But everyone is a poster/pope now, and there is so much guidance and advice and ‘content’ out there that we could spend a lifetime of quarantines just reading the index.

Also: though I am very good at slow writing, I am no expert on productivity – preacher, heal thyself, etc.

Also: someone beat me to the big gay rug.

So instead I am going to post a writing experiment inspired by something that’s far more important. Something that has been a real salve of late.

TULIPS. 

I love tulips. I love gardens and I love gardening. We have a tiny garden, and I fill its beds with ferns and shrubs, and I fill the gaps with pots, and I fill many of those pots with bulbs. And one day in spring you turn your head, and colour and texture and form are there where they weren’t before. Especially in the bold form of

TULIPS

I planted 345 tulip bulbs back in November/December, and every morning since early April I have gone out in the garden to check on their progress. Cruellest month, my arse; Eliot is as bad as Plath, who described a tulip as a ‘wound’ – insert Scream emoticon! Two misery-guts together, spectres with their mugs lurking above Anglo-American poetry.

Back to my tulips – not wounds, but salves, comforts, great joys. Just a few duds this year (a pot of Tulipa humilis Liliput that I fear I waterlogged). Otherwise: the tulips are a thesaurus of pinks and plums and oranges.

And their names! Some grand, some silly, some wtf. And each name belongs to its tulip – sometimes a perfect fit, sometimes a less comfortable description but an interesting combination all the same. Trusty Ballerina, fey Orange Angelique, lush Jan Reus – admire his crimson hues at the top of the page. Prinses Irene like a flirty divorcée, hunky Havran, seductive Paul Scherer the sales director. China Pink: spiky and funny and intelligent – a scientist, I suspect (see just above). Each has its own personality, profession, deepest yearnings.

Sometimes they talk about me behind my back while I’m drinking my tea, like these Ballerinas above.

Sometimes I have to break up fights – check out these Queens of the Night ganging up on a couple of those bitchy Ballerinas in the rain.

Some are flashy, and even when they are getting old and a bit crispy at the edges they love to show their drawers. They remind me of my nan. These above are called Burgundy, but they look mauve to me. Which just goes to show: appearances are deceiving. Also applies to my nan …

So far this year I’ve taken 236 photos of tulips on my iPhone. I keep them in a special album, which is why I, unlike Priti Patel, can provide accurate statistics. I’ve posted some others on my Instagram. Sometimes I feel I am overdoing it with the photos, but I guess that’s what photographers do – you just take pics until you are happy with one. And they make me very happy.

From the vantage of my hermitage, and after however many weeks it is (three, six, a Priti thirty-four), I’ve come to realise that dogs and plants and books are on the whole my preferred company.

In other tulip news, I broke the longest fast of book-buying in my life, and ordered myself a belated birthday present in the form of Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, which for some reason I never got round to reading before. I am glad I waited, as last year it came out in a sumptous twentieth-anniversary edition, and it is GORGEOUS. Tulips for year round – and for planning my pots for 2021, and beyond.

Anyway, at the risk of being a bit Let Them Eat Tulips: I want to use tulips for a writing experiment in which you create a story. This is what I propose:

1. Pick half a dozen of your favourite tulips. Use some of the inspirations listed in the links below. Or go out into your garden or to a florist and pick some yourself, if you can. Be drawn to their hues, their shapes, their names perhaps, and what they represent to you.

2. Write their names down the side of a piece of paper. (Leave space for working beside each one.)

3. Now put them to work. Sort these names out. Take notes. Some of the names will be characters. Some will be settings, either the names you give to places, or places you can take your story to. Some might be the names of random objects that will set your story in action. Some might have other resonances: themes, workplaces, ambitions, character flaws.

4. And now: put all of these names together into a story. I’m here thinking of Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, where you put various ingredients into a container and then work out their connections: How do they describe themselves, and how do others see them? What are their deepest yearnings, and their inner conflicts, and how do these create tensions among the group? How do they sit in each other’s company, and what do they give or take from each other? What part of the world are they in? What story do they have to tell?

Then write it up. You can change names later, if the tulip names seem a little too peculiar for the story you end up with. Or you might just want to create tulippy variants.

Have fun with this. It is often a good idea to start with a name, and then just let your imagination go wild. You could ever do variations with the names of other plants: types of roses, the brassy monikers of heucheras, cultivars of apples. Or extend this idea to other catalogues: the names of yoga poses or cars, or product names from Ikea.

If you want some inspirations for tulip names, though, try some of the following links and departure points (excuse us, Black Knight and Don Quichotte!):

* The tulip pages at Avon Bulbs (my favourite supplier)

* Elegant Tulip Bulbs (new to me, but this site apparently lists over 3,700 tulip names – can’t be true, or can it?! you might have to Google some of the images)

* Other garden catalogues – Parker’s, Sarah Raven, Jacques Amand

* Arthur Parkinson’s Instagram

* Forde Abbey on Instagram

* The RHS

* Annie Proulx, whose use of names for characters and places is astonishing. Absurd, even, but I’m not complaining. Jack Twist, Lightning Flat, Brokeback Mountain, Quoyle, Petal Bear, Dakotah, Charles Duquet. Some of those could be tulip names.

* Google

* And not tulip but ever so colourful – if you really want to crochet that rug: Artist Fritz Haeg on How to Make a Rug from Materials in Your Home

And now farewells, from Orange Angelique …

… Black Night, Don Quichotte, China Pink, Havran, and Barcelona … and …

… probably my fave of all, lusty Jan Reus.

We’ll be welcoming in the summer by then, but note that I am teaching an online workshop on Perfect Plotting for The Literary Consultancy via Zoom on Wednesday 24 June at 4-6pm – more details at this link.

And I am planning other online workshops too. Subscribe to my blog for further information when it’s ready.

 

Character Questionnaire: Writing Experiment No. 70

On Saturday I led a masterclass on Character and Setting in conjunction with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. It’s the latest in our series of classes intended as a practical, DIY alternative to the craft seminars of an MA/MFA in creative writing. Here is Kellie’s account of the day.

We discussed Olive Kitteridge and Tom Ripley and Ennis Del Mar, and Bridget Jones and that other Singleton, Mary Ann from Tales of the City. We talked about types (heroes, mentors, shapeshifters), and primary identities, and desires and inner conflicts.

We drew cartoon sketches of characters, and maps for them to be placed in. I think there is a great value in bringing nonverbal forms of expression into our writing practice, not least in keeping a check on overthinking. I’m always looking for ways in which writers can develop their writerly intuition, sparking surprises and digging deeper with their characters – their yearnings, their contradictions, their secrets. Which might include some of our own, and some of those of people we know, and some we made up entirely.

As usual: a lot to fit in! And we had a good laugh or two, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. A further bonus came from listening to Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited talking about her career in rights, export sales, and licensing. There were a lot of Agatha Christie fans in the room, and I have already been prompted to return to The Mysterious Mr Quin, which I suspect I might get more from as an adult. An excellent and engaging talk, shedding light on important parts of the publishing business – thanks, Christina! And thanks also to Kellie Jackson for helping organise the day. Some snaps from the day are below.

One fun exercise was creating a collaborative character questionnaire.

Answering questions about a character’s outer identity and inner world is a common exercise in creative writing. There is, of course, a risk that assembling a character out of such details can lead to cookie-cutter writing that gets caught up in representing the facts assembled on a checklist at the expense of telling a story. The result, if we are not careful, is writing cluttered with detail but lacking in heart and momentum. We considered, for example, that cliché of someone looking in the mirror in the first pages of a book as a way of establishing a character, focusing on obvious traits that pin that character down but somehow seem a bit flat or predictable as a depiction.

A conversation about a white lab coat concluded that we in fact need very little description to bring a character to life: the Principle of Sufficiency. We also discussed the importance of defining characters through their speech (dialogue, subtext) and their actions (their plottings) and their perceptions (point of view).

All the same, creating Character Files (and Setting Files) can be productive work in assembling our stories: building a mood board or a scrapbook, saving pics on Pinterest, taking walks in the personality of your character and seeing the world as they do, thinking about who and why and what and how and where and when they are. See, for example, the Character Questionnaire as well as a version of the popular Proust Questionnaire shared by Gotham Writers.

Below is a version of the questionnaire I created, along with other questions generously shared by Saturday’s class; I tasked them particularly on asking questions that probed characters’ miscellaneous particularities and oddities. Such prompts are intended as exercises for exploring your character’s depths and potential, but some of the writing that’s spurred may in fact lead its way into your book.

Give yourself an hour (a good chunk of time), and devote yourself to working through your answers to these questions for your character. Then come back and fill in the gaps you might not have answered immediately. And then do the questionnaire again for other characters. And so on … And do feel free to update at a later date, as your story shifts in its drafting.

Also: please feel free to add questions of your own in the Comments below. Thanks in advance!

Also thanks to everyone who came on Saturday, and made it such an enjoyable day. Our next workshop, Crafting Your Prose, is on Saturday 30 March at London Bridge Hive. There are just a couple of spaces left.

 

Character Questionnaire

Consider the following questions for your characters, not only in the context of their background and history, but also within the timeframe of your story – and beyond.

Outer world

  • What is your character’s name?
  • Does your character have other names, pseudonyms, or nicknames?
  • Describe their appearance: hair, eyes, height, weight, distinguishing features.
  • What is their state of health?
  • What is their family background? And current family?
  • What is their marital/romantic status?
  • What was their social class growing up? And during the course of the book?
  • What is their primary identity/category/type: occupation, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, region, language, other? (Primary = defining the storyline.)
  • What are any secondary identities/categories that important in defining them?
  • How might your character contradict any types they belong to?
  • What is your character’s dramatic role or function in the story?
  • What problem does your character face within the story?
  • And what question does your character pose to the reader?

 

Inner world

  • What is your character’s personality type? (Outgoing, introvert, obsessive, laid back, etc.)
  • What does your character yearn for?
  • What secrets does your character keep, and from whom?
  • What are your characters’ flaws?
  • What mistakes or poor choices has your character made?
  • What risks has your character taken?
  • What wounds does your character carry?
  • What does your character fear?
  • What are your character’s phobias?
  • What are your character’s prejudices?
  • What are your character’s pathologies? Consider: OCD, anxiety, neurosis, narcissistic, sociopathic, mental health, gossipy, inability to take criticism, etc.
  • What are your character’s politics?
  • What makes your character angry?
  • What brings your character greatest happiness? And how easy is this?
  • What are your character’s passions?
  • What memories continue to shape your character? (Personal as well as cultural/collective.)

 

Misc. behaviours, habits, tastes, oddities (which often reflect both inner and outer worlds)

  • What are your character’s repeated actions? Routines? Tics? Mannerisms? Catchphrases?
  • Does your character have a pet?
  • What is the best gift your character ever received? Ever gave?
  • What direction is your character moving in?
  • What is your character’s favourite … food? … book? … hobbies? … sports? Etc.
  • What is your character’s spirit animal? Their nemesis animal (an animal that represents a character flaw or weakness, e.g., squirrel = scattered and a hoarder)?
  • How does your character sleep?
  • What does your character keep or dispose of when decluttering?

 

Additional questions from Words Away masterclass, 26 January 2019

  • In a stressful situation, would your character be most likely to (a) pray, (b) swear, (c) cry, (d) other?
  • What is their favourite holiday destination?
  • What smell takes your character back to being a child?
  • What is your character’s preferred mode of transport and why?
  • Any tattoos or piercings? What? Where? When? Why? Do they smoke/did they? What? Where? When? Why?
  • How does your character feel about kissing?
  • What is the biggest source of shame for your character and have they ever told anyone about it?
  • Is your character subconsciously trying to impress/gain respect/[insert motivation] their father or their mother? How does this cause/drive conflict in your story?
  • How does your character respond to an unexpected extravagant gift?
  • What action that your character has taken would they change, and what would they do instead?
  • Who was your character in his/her most recent former lifetime?
  • What does your character need/desire and what’s stopping her from getting it?
  • What is your character’s secret fantasy?
  • If your character was a song, which song would it be and why?
  • How does your character act when getting changed at a public swimming pool?
  • How does he/she relax? (I.e., what do they like to do for downtime?)
  • If your character had only two hours to live, who would they spend it with, where, and why?
  • [Insert your own questions below, and invite your friends for their questions too.]