Monday, 13 December 2010

Round Robin: Frances Garrood

Frances, your books have been praised (by Andrew Davies, no less) for their beautifully drawn and endearing characters. How do you go about creating your fictional people? And when you start a new book are the people the first thing to fill your imagination; or does the theme of the novel come first?

Thank you, Eliza. Difficult questions, but I'll try to anwer them as briefly as I can.

First question. I don't think I conciously set about "creating" characters; they just seem to arrive. Some of them are bits of people I've known; others come from my own imagination. If I think about my characters, I can see that there are recurring themes (mad old women, for one. I've known a lot of mad old women), but on the whole it's an unconscious process. I am incapable of creating someone who is wholly bad. I think my work as a nurse and a counsellor has made me very conscious of the fact that there really is good in everyone (how trite that sounds!), and even my worst character, who I suppose is the eponymous Ernest of my first novel, has reasons for his appalling behaviour, and there are glimpses of good among the bad (thoughI have to admit, not many). However I do it, it's a gradual processs. The characters arrive unformed, and they develop with the novels. Some of them just appear uninvited; others are half-expected. But because I don't usually know what's going to happen next, I often don't know who's going to happen next, either.

Second question. I think I probably start with a very vague idea rather than a particular theme, but once the characters arrive, they make the idea into a story, like characters acting out a play. Dead Ernest began with an idea - widowhood - because it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, and I suppose I almost needed to write about it. Initially, there were three widows, one of them being the youngish one that was once me, but the mad old widow (inevitably) took over, and she was actually rather pleased that Ernest had died, so the original idea went out of the window and it became her story. I like being surprised by what happens; I love the way characters take over. I suspect that only a fellow writer understands the great joy when a character comes alive and does its own thing, almost without any help from the writer. My latest novel does have a structure, which is a first for me, and a theme, but it was still initially very vague, and the characters continued to surprise me right up until the end.

And now I'd just like to say to all MNWers that I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, and a really successful 2011. This year has had its triumphs; Ryan's award (a first for MNW), the Kindling of Aliya, Tim, David and others, American rights for Faye, a deal with Macmillan for Dee, and Brian, Eliza and Len continuing to turn out successful novels at an amazing rate (I know that's not all, but it's pretty impressive!). May next year (our fifth birthday) be even better!

And now for Brian McGilloway's questions. Brian, you have been one of Macmillan New Writing's big success stories. Firstly, how do you manage to fit a steady output of novels with a day job and young family? Secondly, do you plan? ie do you know exactly what's going to happen in a novel before you start writing it (I have always imagined that this is essential in crime writing, although I now there are crime writers who still don't know "who dunnit" until halfway through)? And lastly, was it always going to be crime for you, or have you considered writing in any other genre?


Doug Worgul said...


The process you describe so well captures nearly perfectly the way my characters come into being. Nice to know that other writers experience it the same way.

Thank you for your insightful response.


C. N. Nevets said...

I like your wording: "the characters arrive uninformed." This suggests not only that you may not know everything about them, but they themselves are in a state of discovery of their own character and the story in which they're about to participate.

I sometimes feel that writers imbue their characters were far too much self-awareness and too a priori of a grasp on the fictional world around them.

Uninformed seems good for all concerned.

Eliza Graham said...

Thanks for those very thoughtful answers to my questions, Frances. Have a great 2011!

Tim Stretton said...

The feeling of having a character "come alive" as you write is one of the great joys of writing.

In The Dog of the North I introduced a character as "stage business" simply to give one of the other characters someone to talk to. As I wrote on, she developed a stubborn and unsentimental opportunism that I came to enjoy - so much so that, had the series continued, she would eventually have had her own book. You can never plan that sort of thing!

Len Tyler said...

I agree, Frances - watching your characters develop in ways that you don't expect is one of the great joys of writing. The opening lines of Dead Ernest are, by the way, amongst my all-time favourites: "No one had expected Ernest to die, least of all Ernest".

A happy to Christmas to you, and to all of the MNWers - and many thanks for your kind and generous remarks about our various successes this year. Good luck to everyone with their writing in 2011!

Frances Garrood said...

Thanks, everyone. It's good to be able to talk about things like characters coming to life to people who understand that that's what really happens. Saying this kind of thing to non-writers can seem pretentious (not to say eccentric!).

Brian McGilloway said...

Hi Frances

A great post and I agree with your comment about being able to say things within the MNW group that don't sound pretentious.

Thanks too for the questions. I hope my answers (when I get them done) are half as literate and thoughtful as your own.

Best for Christmas and the New Year to you and yours.

Alis said...

I love your line about not knowing 'who's going to happen next' - that's exactly how it is, isn't it? I love it when new characters just saunter nonchalently on to the page and proceed to rewrite your book for you!

FLB said...

I have a similar thing with my characters - they have an unnerving habit of walking into my head rather than being consciously created. Occasionally they do things that surprise me (as others have said, it's difficult to convince non-writers of the possibility of that) - most notably a character in the WIP, whose dark side suddenly spilled out all over the page while I was writing, and turned out to be darker than I'd realised.

Thanks for the new year wishes, and same to all of you too!