Bethan set the BHASVIC students a really thought-provoking creative writing exercise:
I have a writing task for this week’s session, which is inspired by Arthur’s question about creating characters. For My Policeman, I used the story of the novelist E.M. Forster’s love affair with a policeman called Bob Buckingham, who was married to a nurse named May. Forster and Bob had a long love affair, and no one really knows how much May knew about this, but we do know that it was May who nursed Forster when he had a stroke late in life. She was by his bedside, holding his hand, as he died.
This story gave me the kernel — the starting point — of the novel, and of the characters of Patrick and Marion.
The task is called Do You Remember the Time? and I hope it will allow you to remember an event from your past, but through the eyes of someone else.
For the task, I want you to think of a real person you know. It might be a member of your family, or it might be a friend or an acquaintance. Make a few notes about them. How do they look? How do they speak? How do they walk? What’s it like to live in their body? What are their secret hopes and desires? Perhaps spend 10 minutes on this.
Now I want you to write a letter or an email from this person to you. Begin it with the words Do you remember the time…In the letter, they will describe a memory of something the two of you did together, or an event the two of you witnessed. Perhaps, for example, a primary school teacher is writing to you about the time you answered them back. Or an aunty is writing to you about a family Christmas meal. Or a friend is writing to you about the time they stole your trainers.
Don’t worry about writing in full sentences, or about polishing anything at the moment. All of that can come later. Just write. Follow your pen. If you find yourself making things up, or going off at a complete tangent, so much the better.
If you find that you have written something interesting, you can work on it at home, later. For now, just allow your imagination to take you somewhere. Put some words down and see what happens.
Here’s one of the amazing responses, with Bethan’s feedback.
Ruby’s message to Bethan
I really loved reading your book, to the extent that I put off two pieces of homework to finish it. I particularly loved your characterisation and the quirks that separated the individuals, like Patrick’s trochaic heart. I have been trying to work on my own characterisation recently, but feel like I’ve hit a few walls. I have an old friend, an elderly woman I used to work with, who I have based characters off in the past. Today, I tried the exercise you set us of writing a letter from the perspective of someone from our pasts. I chose my old friend, and I think I was able to find my focus and detail in my character/interpretation of her personality, but I’m still unsure of how it’s working. I have attached my piece and would love your feedback on it.
Ruby’s creative writing piece: Letter from Linda
Do you remember when we first met Victor? He was that French one, that I’m sure had never read a book in his life. I’m sure you remember. He came in half an hour late, and practically demanded to speak to management. You really put him in his place, John and I were trying not to laugh as your maturity made him look like a toddler. Speaking of toddlers, do you remember how he refused to help me with the children’s books. Instead he spent about twenty minutes stacking travel guides, and pricing them at £5.00 a pop. He probably never learnt the value of British money. Of course he spent the majority of his shift on that balcony, puffing out enough smoke to pollute the whole of Brighton. And do you remember when he went on his lunch break? Taking an hour out of a four hour shift – how terribly rude. I told him that, didn’t I, when he came back. He was such a rude boy. I’m glad Ollie sacked him. Do you remember that? It was that day we were under-staffed, and I had a bad back. I remember, because you had to handle the children’s books. I wouldn’t have been able to trek up and down those stairs all day. And of course he never showed up, so it was even more difficult in the shop. I remember you tried to call Ollie but he was on holiday again, so you left him a note. Well, John told me that Mary had a talk with Ollie about this Victor, and they decided to let him go. I won’t say it was a shame because it wasn’t. He was an assistant at a bookshop, and he didn’t like books, and he didn’t assist.
I hope to hear from you again soon and we can catch up on all.
Many thanks for sending your piece, and for your kind comments about My Policeman. I’m really pleased that you found the exercise worth doing, and that you’re thinking so deeply about characterisation.
I think you’ve got the start of something promising here. Linda’s is an interesting voice and I started to get a real feel for her character from this. She’s very judgmental (‘he was that French one’), and I’m getting a sense of her as someone who is a bit stuck up and rude herself — but also amusing and rather intelligent (‘your maturity made him look like a toddler’). I like the way you’ve carefully selected your language to underline Linda’s slight snobbishness and her humour (‘enough smoke to pollute the whole of Brighton’). All this suggests to me that she is a very unreliable narrator, perhaps with her own secrets to hide, which is great…The specific detail is good, too (‘pricing them at £5 a pop’), because it makes the scene begin to seem real. I like, too, the situation of Victor coming to the bookshop — he’s a ’stranger coming to town’ (one of the classic beginnings of a story!).
I suppose that, if you’d like to push it further, I would encourage you to think about a couple of things. One would be how you could begin to turn this into a scene. Could you imagine the scene of Victor arriving at the bookshop, complete with descriptions of the place (is it an old shop? a new one in a train station? is it busy? what does it smell like?), the time (morning? lunchtime?), the sense-based details that make up Linda’s vision of the shop (what does she notice about the window display that day? about the sounds coming from upstairs, or outside?) and the people around her (what does she notice about Victor’s appearance? his voice? his way of standing?). Could you add some dialogue (perhaps Ruby’s putting him in his place might be a place to start?).
I like the conflict you’re suggesting between Linda and Victor, and between Ruby and Victor. Conflict is essential to all stories, because only trouble is interesting! Could you push this further, and perhaps suggest more about Ruby’s relationship with Victor and Linda?
All best wishes, and good luck with your writing,
We’ll post another student’s response to the creative writing exercise soon!