How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?

The title of this blog post is © my grandad Spike Marlin, a remarkable man. (I should here add that since Spike, my family is made up of his descendants who adhere to this principle, and their life partners who helplessly splutter BUT FIVE MINUTES AGO YOU SAID.)

ANYWAY. I just went to lunch with my dad and am half a bottle in, so it feels like time for a free association blog post.

As it happens, I was at another boozy event the other day, a friend’s 50th birthday party. There I met up with my mate, the poet Natalie Shaw, and as frequently happens we took a deep dive into craft, specifically on the topic of finding what you’re trying to say.

Take a moment here. Natalie writes poems, often at sonnet length. She takes an idea and encapsulates it in maybe 14 lines of precise and scintillating language. I write historical romance novels. I spend eighty thousand words telling a love story while flailing around in historical facts, emotional conundrums, and any amount of knotty contradictory thoughts. You might think we are not the same.

Natalie takes a concept (idea, image), and refines her method of expressing it until it’s cut like a crystal. I start telling a love story, splurging out the words on a far bigger scale, and find the themes emerging from the murky depths of the first draft much like Godzilla. And yet, we agreed, we both find out what we think when we hear what we say. That may look like sharpening 14 lines, or like redrafting 80,000 words, but in both cases, we agreed, the meaning emerges from the process.

Interestingly, I received a question a while ago from reader Lindsay Hobbs that said:

Your books always touch on something deeper and/or bigger than the individuals. I’m thinking particularly about The Society of Gentlemen series, with its inclusion of class/wealth inequality, or the Sins of the Cities series, with its themes of neurodivergence, gender identity, and grey areas of morality. (I could go on listing things for all of your books, but I’m sure you get the gist!)

I love how this provides a way for your characters to get very deep with one another and reveal their moral codes and belief systems, and I also just love the representation of these larger issues and ideas in general.

I’m wondering how you work this into your stories, at what point the bigger/deeper ideas come to you when you are drafting, and any tips for writing related to this that you want to share!

I’ve been sitting on this for a while because I had no idea how to answer it. I don’t generally set out to write Big Issues. I tend to start with one character and a setting, think of the worst possible love interest they could have in the circumstances, and let fly, and the context kind of rises up around me. My mother has a saying that everyone’s career makes sense in retrospect. Certainly, my books make a lot more sense in retrospect than they do when I’m writing them.

Thus, I have just written, on request, a Gothic-type romance. Big scary house, dark family secrets, woman in white dress running away, you know the drill. Because me, I decided to mine the first wave of Gothic novels (1760s-1820s) as well as the 1970s style. That was the entire plan when I started.

And I wrote the first draft, and I brought in a Gothic novelist very like the real Gothic novelist William Beckford. Who was incredibly rich because he was a plantation owner. And that made me think about the very current struggle in British culture of coming to terms with how much of our cultural wealth is stolen from the labour of enslaved people. And that made me think about what it means for a people, a descent, a family to have tainted wealth and refuse to acknowledge it. Which in turn made me think about the fundamental Gothic trope of the cursed family rotten at the core. Which then made me think about themes of things that are said and unsaid, and about family secrets that are shameful vs the ones that are treated as shameful, and…

And anyway, now it’s a book about a guy with undiagnosed ADHD, among other things, and if you say “So why did you decide to write a character with ADHD?” I will gesture at the preceding paragraph and cry.

Look, you can take a single lump of rock and chip away everything that isn’t a diamond. Or you can take a meaty bone, and keep adding things to it until it’s a rich and flavourful stew. There is no right way to do this writing malarkey.

But if you want to know what you think?

I don’t know any better way than to hear what you say.

4 replies
  1. Ananda
    Ananda says:

    “I tend to start with one character and a setting, think of the worst possible love interest they could have in the circumstances, and let fly, and the context kind of rises up around me.” THIS is exactly why SoG is one of my favourite series ever.

    Thank you for your books and blog posts!


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