For me, one of the secrets of the writer/mummy is to always take your story with you in your head. If you carry your characters in your mind you can chat to them, shout at them, fire questions at them – their answers won’t always be predictable and the conversations can be very interesting.
Creative writing advice books will tell you that the more you know about your characters the better your writing will be. If you are the kind of person that makes lists or is very good at being thorough, there are various forms available online to work out all the details of your characters – star sign, favourite colour, place of birth. This is a particularly comprehensive one I have discovered (but am far too lazy to fill out for any of my characters!)
These character maps are useful, they enable you to be consistent and understand how your character might react to a given situation. However, if you’re honest, could you say what your best friend’s favourite colour is or where she was born? That doesn’t mean you don’t know her inside out, though, does it? You learn more about her real character from gossiping over a glass of wine or from watching how she copes in a crisis.
For me the same can be said of my characters. When I’m out and about I like to imagine what my characters would say to each other, how they would handle a range of situations. I fantasize about their futures in the same way I used to fantasize about my own whenever I got dumped (you know, those scenes where he comes back grovelling and begging for you to forgive him, but you spurn him with a toss of your sleek blonde hair.)
It can help if you think of plot and character development as a series of ‘What if?’ and ‘Why?’ questions. What if your female protagonist jacked in her job to take up sky-diving, what if your male lead got dumped at the altar? Why would she take up sky-diving – is it to conquer her fear of heights, because her ex said she was too scared to do anything dangerous, because her mum forbade her and she’s just pissed off at the world. Why did he get dumped? Was he a bastard, did she meet someone else? Has his fiancée found out she’s dying of cancer and doesn’t want to put him through the pain of losing her slowly?
When I’m in the throes of writing, particularly in the early days of a new book, my head is flooded with questions and potential answers. I often don’t know the answer that will appear in the book until I write, (and characters have a nasty habit of not doing what they’re told) but I have already played out all the various permutations in my head while in the supermarket queue, driving the car or lying awake in the night between bouts of teething tantrums.
Another important thing is to always have writing implements to hand – a crayon, a notepad, a mobile phone – to write down that dazzling piece of dialogue or dastardly plot twist. Once you start with the what ifs and whys it can lead you down the most meandering of mazes. It’s best to take notes as you go along, unless you’ve had enough sleep to have a particularly retentive memory.
My mobile phone is my most important writing tool, aside from my laptop. (As I write, my mobile phone is dead; I am utterly bereft and trying to fathom how to work my husband’s spare!) I like the phone because I always have it to hand; it is both pen and paper; it doesn’t get scribbled on by the kids (though often covered in yoghurt or chocolate) and – best of all – I can send my texts to my laptop, thus saving me the effort of writing it all twice.
My favourite time to write conversations between my characters is when I’m walking the dog, as I can text and walk at the same time (us mothers are good at multi-tasking, yes?) and for some reason I find the rhythm of walking sets a good pace for dynamic dialogue.
If you think you don’t have time to write, then think of all the times in the day when you can tap out a quick text message – waiting in the supermarket queue, sitting in the car with a sleeping child, lying in the dark waiting for them to go back to sleep. (I wrote some of this section at 6am, on my mobile phone, with a sickly child asleep on my chest.)
So, next time you’re tired of listening to the twentieth rendition of Miss Polly Had a Dolly in the car, pass your toddler a banana and, while she’s busy eating, have a think about the stickiest situation you can land your characters in. Then work out the most outlandish way you can rescue them again.
I would love to hear about your favourite ‘thinking’ times, or your craziest plot twists. What is your favourite way of taking notes?