Writing and the subconscious mind

John Sell Cottman Greta RiverThe subconscious for me, as a writer, is like a treasure chest. I might have deliberately or “unconsciously” stored stuff away that over the years I’ve forgotten about. It might be, for instance, a note to myself to read a book that for the life of me, I can’t see at the present moment that I need to read. Or as in the case of The Night Garden a book my subconscious has chosen for me.

It might be a memory or a fact that stays with me but I don’t know what to do with. In the 1990s I was doing research for my third manuscript with the working title of the The Nightingales. It was set over a period of twenty or so years from 1914 to 1937. Somewhere amidst all the pages I read and photocopied, was an account of a WWII army captain (from memory) who was on leave and on his honeymoon. The tyre blew out on their car whilst they were driving to their hotel. His bride died at the scene and later he killed himself in his hotel room. A simple thing for him to do as he had with him his full service kit.

The incident was seared into my subconscious but I didn’t expect I would be able to do anything with it. After all it was years after the period I was researching and at that time I wasn’t writing short stories. It wasn’t until 2013 that a friend asked me for a short story for an anthology he was putting together. The incident of the dead captain came straight to mind. Here was my chance to finally put him to rest. From that short story has come a new character and what I hope will be a series of short stories that I’m currently working on.

My new enigmatic character has memories from the first World War. This week I needed some idyllic memory that a soldier could go back to briefly, before he moved on to the next world. What came to my conscious mind? A bluebell wood I visited somewhere in England in 1976. I did some googling but they weren’t the sort of images I was looking for and the bluebell woods weren’t located in suitable places either. It was then I remembered a card of a bluebell wood I saved from twenty years ago.

It was a painting. Early morning I’m guessing with a green path leading to a wooden gate and bluebells spilling over the foreground. The light is diffused, almost healing in its otherworldliness. The painting was perfect to help me set the scene in my writing and I am so glad I saved the card.

These days I am more aware of things like this. If I get a little nudge to really take note of something, I obey my subconscious and write it down in my notebook, bookmark the page or as I’m doing now incorporate it into my blog.

Here is another nudge from my subconscious. It occurred last week at the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition of The Greats from the National Galleries of Scotland. Yes, here were a lot of paintings I had seen in art books during high school. 70 incredible sketches, paintings and watercolours spanning a period of 400 years from the Renaissance to Impressionism. Out of all these amazing artworks what stopped me in my tracks? The modest watercolour above – A pool in the River Greta near Rokeby.

The first thing I noticed was how modern the watercolour appeared to my eyes. Amazing to think Cotman painted it over two hundred years ago! Why did it have such an impact on me? I’m sure it is not just because it appears very modern. Maybe the beauty of the location and the name – Greta? There is a Greta north from where I live. It is a beautiful spot too. I can keep on speculating but the why of it ultimately doesn’t matter. I trust my subconscious. I’m sure it has its reasons.

The Bottom Line: Our characters are what they focus on.

It sounds simple of course but I really didn’t discover this until recently. To be more precise after I finished writing Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel.  I decided (unwisely I now know) to use eight different points of view to tell the story. This was a challenge of course and one I think I met for the most part, except for one thing – two of my male characters were often confused with each other by my readers. I thought it was enough to differentiate them – one was gay, lived in Cornwall and was a new age writer; the other was in love with the main female character Jane, lived in Boston and was an antiquarian bookdealer. But ultimately they often appeared the same because their thoughts were both focused on Jane, worrying about her and trying to anticipate her next move. It also didn’t help that both men’s name started with J…

We learn of course by our mistakes and I am much more aware now, how important focus is. It doesn’t just dictate our character’s thoughts (and ours for that matter) but also how a character dresses, acts and treats others and ultimately dictates the course of the whole novel.

In Fifty Shades of Grey the main character’s focus is of course on the sexy but rather twisted Christian Grey. In the novel James labels her character Ana’s thoughts as sometimes “my inner goddess” or  “my subconcious”. These “other” voices occasionally clash with her general thoughts but for the most part Ana’s focus collectively remains on Grey’s delectable hips.

In Bernard Schlink’s The Weekend: A Novel it is hard to keep track of the characters at times but when we do move closer to them I noticed that Schlink had given them all different concerns; if they were focusing on the same thing ie their friend, a former terrorist released from prison after serving a long sentence – then they were depicted with varying viewpoints. Reading this novel was a real eye-opener for me in regards to differentiating characters.

I realise now too, how brilliant one of my long time favourite writers is at this. I remember in Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shellseekers, when we are introduced to Noel all he’s thinking about (I’m writing this from memory) is his clothes and the heating in his flat. And that’s all that is really important to this character because he’s totally self-absorbed.  Never mind that his mother is ill, material things are more important and this is all just in the first paragraph introducing him – a brilliant example of determining a character’s focus quickly. Pilcher can do this very artfully in her short stories in just a few lines and that’s why I love her!

I used to think that as long as you managed to get in a character’s physical description and emotional makeup, were careful how they spoke and dressed, then they would all appear different from each other. But of course that’s not necessarily true. I’ve learnt this lesson after years of hard work. It’s all so obvious now but the knowledge has come to me at a time when I actually can’t put it into practice! In my current novel I am unable to go into the mind of my character. We can only judge her by what she says and does. Her diaries tell us some things but the reader has to guess her focus.

As you can guess by this, I love to set myself challenges and I will report on my blog with what I’ve learnt from this exercise in the near future. In the meantime back to The Grey Silk Purse.