Keeping Mum

By Dark Angels

Fifteen Dark Angels produce something stranger than fiction

Friday, 19 July 2013

Liking lichen, writing Iris, and other thoughts

The second most interesting thing about my character Iris is that she's a botanist. I like writing a character who's an expert at something. Whenever I was stuck, I'd find an interesting plant and use it as an entry point into her head and her thoughts.

I've been writing my sections in Kew Gardens on a shady bench in the Temperate House. I write by hand in my orange notebook and sometimes I have to dip inside and read a plaque or two to find the right word for a plant, or the reason it's interesting.

When we gathered in Balavil in March, I went on a couple of windy walks to clear my head after intensive spurts of writing and thinking. The bark of the trees was covered with lichen as if they'd been touched by magical frost. I was delighted that my research uncovered so many wonderful names for lichen. My two favourites play a starring role - Specklebellies (Pseudocyphellariaspecies) and Blackberries and Custard (Parmentaria chilense).

Later, I learnt that it's possible to judge the purity of the air by how much lichen is growing on the wildlife. It led me to thinking about whether you could judge people on the purity of the life they lead - and how do you define a pure life? Iris's vocation as a botanist fed me thoughts and lines and words time and time again.

So what have I learnt about writing from this collaborative process that's going to help me with my own novels? Three things.

1/ Plotting is hard, but it's easier when you talk about it with other people. From now on, I'll be thrashing out storylines with friends and family.

2/ Give your character a job. An interesting job. It will infuse their ideas, thoughts and language and help you when you get stuck.

3/ Lose your ego. There's no place for an ego in writing. This is amplified, of course, in a collective effort like this. But it holds true in your own writing too - murder those darlings, don't try and be clever, make the writing bigger than you, make the whole book bigger than your beautiful sentences.

Elen Lewis




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