Saturday, 25 February 2012

Titanic Anniversary

This April will see the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, so expect to see a lot of commemorative documentaries and dramas about the ill-fated liner.

Even one hundred years on there's something that still fascinates people about this event. It has spawned films and books, but for me the most affecting of all is the wealth of real life stories about those who died or survived that night in the North Atlantic.  Even a look at the casualty list makes poignant reading; whole families, young and old, rich and poor, came to a sudden and bitter end that night.  Many of them no doubt believed this trip of a lifetime to the New World would be the start of a wonderful new life, never suspecting it would in fact be the end of this one.

I am currently reading The Story of the Titanic As Told By Its Survivors  edited by Jack Winocour.  Forget about all the silly Hollywood melodrama, this is the real deal.  Personal eyewitness accounts by those who were there and managed to survive. The remarkable thing is there was no drama, either on the night or in the account. That is what makes the stories so gripping.  The events themselves are terrible enough that anyone with a modicum of imagination can place themselves in the witness's shoes and relive the shocking events.  

Many of those lost were never recovered, and of the three hundred or so bodies retrieved from the water only some were ever identified.  Titanic's Ghosts is an excellent documentary about recent attempts to identify the remains.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Sketching Characters

I'm currently trying to sketch my son as an exercise.  I'm using a photo taken a few years ago.  To simplify it, I've reduced the image to black and white and trying out different techniques, papers and materials to see which is easiest to use and get the best results.  It's an interesting process.  Each time I do a new sketch I end up with something quite different.
Characters are like that, for me anyway.  Nailing a character is like trying to achieve a likeness in a sketch.  It's all about knowing what to include, and what to leave out.  Some details help inform a character, make him real and identifiable.  Get something crucial wrong and you throw the whole sketch out of whack.  Similarly acting out of character throws the reader out of the story.  It's one of those tripping up moments.

So how do you form your characters before you start?  Some authorities recommend writing out full bios, or character statements.  I think anything helps if it gets you into the mind of that character.  Some people start blogs and write it in the character's voice.  That's a good one for exploring background and attitudes.  But any time spent on this exercise is not wasted, because the Devil, as they say, is in the detail.  Get your character right and you'll create someone real that people want to read about.  And that's half the battle.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

In Praise of Libraries

I did something yesterday that I haven't done in yonks.  I went to the library.

Yes, I know. Flay me senseless with disapproving retorts.  Everyone knows you should Support Your Local Library and it was very remiss of me to neglect it for so long.  But to be honest I had forgotten all about it.  

Time was I hung around not only my local library, which isn't the greatest depository of reference material, but also the Central Library in Edinburgh, a better stocked resource, with the dedicated enthusiasm of a junkie.  When the lending allowance went up from 3 books to 15 I nearly fainted with excitement at the prospect of lugging great bagfuls of hardbacks home on wet winter evenings.  I could while away hours fingering the bindings.  

My local library looks nothing like this
So what happened?  The internet, that's what.  Why trudge out of the house when all you need to do is Google something?

But as I mentioned in my last post, I'm toying with art again and looking for inspirational material.  Some subjects call for hard copy and art is one of them.  Hence my visit, prodigal son-like, to the local library.

What was nice was they even remembered me after so long!  Now, that's the kind of personal treatment you don't get from Google, isn't it?  I might not use it much, but it's nice to know it's there.  So don't be like me, folks. Support Your Local Library.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

What Not To Write Part 2

I'm dabbling in art again.  Every few years I get the itch to paint things, but this time I'm sketching.  The urge comes and goes and I go with the flow.  But I've been reading a fascinating book called Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  It's very likely you've heard of it, being a classic in its revolutionary approach to drawing.  Everyone can draw, she says.  The problem is not in the hand or the eye, but in the brain.  Your brain has certain preconceived templates, or gestalt, into which it fits the sensory stimuli it receives.  That's why we tend to draw what we expect to see, rather than what we actually see.  Artists must learn to overcome their own brain to get to the reality, the truth of the world before them.

To help with this she suggests copying from inverted images.  Turn a person's photograph upside down and you no longer see the person but a mass of light and shade.  It's harder to copy because there are no preconceived ideas to hang the blobs on, but the results are astonishingly accurate.  In this way we bypass our own filtering system to find something more real.

And it's making me think about how I write.  Isn't that a filtering process too?  Do I really tell it like it is?  Can I tell it like it is?  Is there some way to overcome the gestalt?

Perhaps the way to do this is to write around the story, the way Edwards advocates drawing what isn't the subject.  Our brains are programmed to join the dots and fill in the missing information.  Screen actors know this principle; the single most differentiating feature of screen acting is the blank face onto which the audience project their own feelings.  Use only streaks of light and shade, the well chosen word and curious phrase, enough to suggest what is happening.  Less is more.