In conversation with Charmaine Wilkerson

It’s wonderful to have support from other writers. In the run-up to publication of my new novella, I had the great pleasure of talking with the brilliant writer Charmaine Wilkerson, who I have got to know through the international flash fiction community.

CW: Cath, it was a pleasure to read through your lovely novella, In the Sweep of the Bay. Your story spans decades and generations within the life of the family at the centre of this story with such finely textured language and profound insights. How would you describe this novella in one line?

CB: It’s the story of a long marriage and the persistence of happiness, in spite of all obstacles.

CW: Where did the idea of the couple at the centre of the story, Ted and Rene, come from?

CB: I don’t know! Did I see a couple like them, in that café on the seafront in Morecambe that they visited on a day out? I wonder. Certainly I went to that café, and the scene was the first section of the book that I wrote, a snapshot of Ted and Rene in later life. It was a stand-alone flash originally and I called it Keeping the Magic Alive. Thinking about it, that could have been the title of the book – it’s what’s at the core of it.

CW: One of the things I appreciate about all of your writing, not only in this novella, is your use of small, telling details in a story. Often, those details evoke a sense of place, not the least of which is the English bay, Morecambe, which is referred to in the title of the story. Which element tends to come first in terms of inspiration for your story ideas- location, character, or event?

CB: Character, I think, always. Or rather, characters moving through their lives. I see the action scrolling out like a film. You know how in a film you can ‘read’ the characters’ emotions on their faces? That’s what I hope I can conjure up for reader in prose.

CW: In this novella, the sense of place includes the interior settings evoked through your storytelling. The buzz of comradeship at the ceramics factory, the coat shop, a hotel lobby, a marital bed. Do these details just come to you in the writing or do you find you take notes in your daily life which then lend themselves to story scenes?

CB: I do wish I was good at keeping notes, because we are surrounded by characters for stories as we walk down the street, any street, on any day. But I don’t carry a notebook. I do take photographs, though; I think I have a strong visual sense, and (I hope) good intuition.

CW: The end of the story is intriguing. I don’t want to give it away here but I do want to mention that it leaves the reader thinking, is this based on a true story?

CB: No, this is pure fiction.

CW: You frequently publish short stories, in particular, flash fiction? What about your longer projects? What can readers expect to see from you next?

CB: I like the shorter forms, novella, short story, flash fiction. I used to say I’d never write a novel. But I have a couple of longer projects. One is a novel I started in NaNoWriMo in 2018, set in Nepal in the aftermath of an earthquake. The other is what think will end up as a novel based on the life of my Auntie Phyllis, who was a famous circus artiste. I feel a responsibility to write her story. Though, unhelpfully, she left few words, only pictures, so what I write has to be fiction.

However, I may just write another novella – or even two! – first. I do seem to have an affinity with the novella form. I’ve tried writing novellas-in-flash without success, but I’m thinking of having a go at a novelette-in-flash, in which each separate story is under 500 words. I’m taking advantage of Nancy Stohlman’s prompts for FlashNano this month to help me with that.

In the Sweep of the Bay is available for order through independent publisher Louise Walters Books.

Charmaine Wilkerson

Charmaine Wilkerson is an American writer who lives in Italy. Her award-winning flash fiction can be found in Best Microfiction 2020 and numerous anthologies and magazines. Her story How to Make a Window Snake won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2017 and the Saboteur Award for Best Novella in 2018. Her debut novel Black Cake is due to be published in 2022.

Guest post: Louise Tondeur with top tips and thoughts on writing in crazy times

When writer Louise Tondeur and I arranged to swap blog posts a couple of months ago we had no idea of the way the world was changing. 

Louise has added a preamble to the top tips she originally sent me and a caveat to one of her ‘don’ts’, to take account of the times in which we now find ourselves. I’m grateful to her for sharing this. 

 

How to write

You don’t need me to tell you that these are crazy times. Some people have more time to devote to writing right now, others have much less time or a much higher mental load and therefore less thinking space. My writing time has been cut in half, for instance, and I haven’t been able to think about it at all over the last week, but I’m extremely fortunate that my family are currently well and I do get some writing time as my wife and I can share the home-schooling. We’re all thinking about key workers at the moment and people are worried about loved ones, of course. So is now a good time to be writing at all? There are at least three answers to that. Firstly people need books, stories, poetry and screenplays more than ever right now. Secondly, writing can be a great way to express how you’re feeling about what’s going on. For example, by doing Julia Cameron’s morning pages. https://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/morning-pages/ Thirdly, if you don’t have time to write during the current crisis, be kind to yourself. You don’t need to add ‘worry about not writing’ to your metal load.

10 top tips

  1. Turn up regularly – make a commitment and schedule it. Why? Because the only real way you learn to write is by doing it. To me, ‘turning up’ includes making lists, simply noticing things, reading, morning pages, and scribbling down ideas or snatches of dialogue.
  2. Read, watch, listen – make time for it, especially in the genre you want to write in. Why? Nobody would try to design a chair without ever sitting down. It’s the same with writing. It’s possible you have more time for this at the moment, possibly not. My wife and I have been trying to watch silly funny programmes to take our mind off the crisis for half an hour or so. This is perfect for me as I would love to write for TV. I am absolutely considering this as ‘research’!
  3. Notice the world around you – use mindfulness to help you write. Why? Because that way you ‘make things new’ for your readers. I think this is one technique we can all practise while the world is going topsy-turvy. I have rediscovered Tara Brach’s meditations over the last few days, which has been incredibly helpful, but even without meditations, you could try to pause for five minutes to notice a plant outside or the things in the room around you. This is a powerful life skill anyway and when you write you can use these observations to make your work more authentic.
  4. Use all of the senses available to you – don’t always default to the visual. Why? Because you’re much more likely to go deeper – and therefore write something more touching or unusual. Again, even if you are unable to find time to write at the moment, use all of your senses when you’re observing the world around you, because that’s going to help you when you sit down to write.
  5. Get in touch with the small detail – don’t simply look at a tree, look at the veins on a leaf. Why? Because, to borrow Susan Sontag’s words, writers are ‘observers of the world’. This is probably my favourite tip of all and you don’t have to be able to go out into the world to do it.
  6. Put yourself in the way of inspiration – theatre, poetry readings, art galleries, and museums. Julia Cameron calls this technique ‘filling the well.’ You can’t do this in person at the moment of course but there are many ways to do it virtually. One good thing about this crisis is the way in which people have pooled resources so these virtual worlds are more accessible than ever. (Plus, one thing that has helped me a lot over the last few weeks is imagining the things I’ll do and the places I’ll go when the danger is over!) Why? Because there are no lightning bolts of inspiration – you’ve got to find it. Waiting around for inspiration is a big mistake.
  7. A combination of 1 – 6: be open to life. Get in the way of the universe. Say ‘yes’. Try new things. Why? See the answers to ‘why?’ under 1 – 6!
  8. Move. Dance, walk, swim, do yoga. Whatever it is, get outside your own head. Why? Because it gives the creative mind a chance to mull over whatever you’re writing and because moving gives us a new (and usually better) perspective on the world. As before, most of these things aren’t possible at the moment outside of the home but you can find dance and yoga classes (for example) on YouTube.
  9. Get to know other writers – join a writers’ group or start one, and check out your local writing centre’s website. Why? For motivation and accountability and for tacit knowledge about your local writing scene. My writing group is using Zoom to stay in touch. It’s easy to use once it’s up and running and a good way to chat to several people virtually.
  10. Try submitting something – or get hold of an opportunity from a writing magazine or online and work to the word count and deadline even if you don’t ultimately send it in. Why? Understanding the process of submission makes it a whole lot less scary and having a practice go makes it easier when you come to do it ‘for real’.

5 things NOT to do:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. We tend only to hear about successes, which warps the picture. Behind every success story you’ll find multiple ‘failures’ that were simply stepping stones.
  2. Don’t read / talk / think about writing without actually doing it. See tip number one above!
  3. Don’t give up after facing hurdles (for some people this means ‘the middle’ of whatever they are writing!). See these as opportunities to look for a solution. Believe me, this is where the fun starts.
  4. Don’t write only one draft. Real writing is redrafting – multiple times.
  5. Don’t write one thing. It’s easy to get fixated on ‘the Novel’ – I know that from experience. Have a go at writing a short story or a monologue or a poem. Give yourself a break from your main project.

I’m doing Sophie Hannah’s Dream Author coaching programme at the moment and she says that we should definitely compare ourselves to other writers – in detail not simply on social media – because then we will see how their writing lives have progressed, and understand the successes and challenges that got them to where they are. I’m adding that as a caveat to ‘don’t’ number 1, because if you do some detailed research it can be fascinating to compare yourself to other writers!

 

Louise Tondeur is a novelist and short story writer. She originally trained as a drama teacher, and currently tutors on the OU’s Creative Writing MA. She blogs at: http://www.louisetondeur.co.uk/blog and http://www.smallstepsguide.co.uk You can find her on Twitter here: @louisetondeur and on Facebook at: facebook.com/louisetondeurwriter

Author pic. Louise Tondeur
Louise Tondeur, credit Ana Bohane Photography

 

 

Dealing with uncertainty and anxiety

We all of us face this just now, writers as much as anyone else. How to deal with it? My small suggestions:

  • Bake breadSourdough. the cut and the rise
  • Walk the hillsWalking on the hills
  • Drink wineThe boys taste the local wine 2
  • And, finally, don’t give yourself any pressure to write anything. It can wait.

 

 

Coming next: Guest post with top does and don’ts for writers

Flash thoughts

I’ve been pondering on flash fiction. This month I’m writing some every day. Here are a few thoughts about the process:

– It’s a useful exercise to use a prompt just to get the creative brain firing. Simply setting words down.

– A strict word limit can produce unexpected juxapositions. As in this micro I wrote this morning using Meg Sefton‘s prompt crisp for 50 word fiction:

First frost and the white ground is calling to me to imprint it. I run alongside tracks of mice and vole, earlier risers. Breath of dogs fogs the air, the shouts of their people boom and retreat. The colours of this time of day are muted, waiting for sun stroking.

I don’t think I would have come up with ‘sun stroking’ if it hadn’t been for the constraint of the work limit.

– Collaging the fragments which float out from my brain in response to different prompts may show up connections.

-At this stage this is all raw material, which I will return to later, to cut, shape and stitch into finished stories.

 

And here’s a picture, which could also be a writing prompt…..

Cat on a writing book cover.jpg
Cat on the cover of a writing book

 

 

Coming next: Guest post

What are you writing this November?

Last year I took part in NaNoWriMo. That was fun and gave me lots of material to work on.

This year I’m back to FlashNano. Nancy Stohlman gives great prompts every day during November. You can use these as you like – for me they are so useful to get my writing brain going, and the little stories I start here may bear fruit later – who knows?!

I’m also using prompts from Meg Sefton to write a 50-word micro each day in November, posted on Twitter with the hashtoag #50FlashNov19. Another little brain workout.

Here are a couple of the micros I’ve written so far:

Day 1 – prompt #ripe

I scan the room. Grey suits, haggard faces, the smell of age. I should never have trusted the photograph. The line is so fine between fullness and the slide into the decay. There, he’s waving. I recognise the eyes. But the flesh is weak. Mine that is. I turn away.

Day 5 – prompt #cat

They said they had to keep us in for three weeks. My sister and I had no say in the matter. They said we were feral. I have no idea what that means in human, but when they finally let us out we climbed over the house. To show them.

Huge thanks to Nancy and Meg for sharing the prompts.

Who’s joining the party?

Doods 7-3-10 3.JPG
Crazy cat Doodle – photo copyright Cath Barton

 

Coming next: More about flash fiction