Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Uncurtained windows: reading writers' notebooks - Anne Rooney

Writers' notebooks are personal, valuable, essential. Somewhere to jot down thoughts as they occur before they disappear back into the ether. They contain the germs of ideas, solutions to problems, plots and titles that never went anywhere - a nostalgia-fest for the writer and a boon for literary biographers and critics in the case of the famous. Reading them is like looking into lit, uncurtained windows on a winter night, especially those in the backs of houses passed on the train. They give a privileged insight into the interior life - the writer in the wild, roaming his or her territory unaware of observers.

I've been using a facsimile of Bram Stoker's notebooks for Dracula while researching my own vampire series, Vampire Dawn (Ransom, March 2012). They look familiar. Spattered with odd jottings that are hard to interpret later, but also with longer pieces meticulously copied or summarised from books and conversations. There are typewritten notes and annotated bits of typescript as well as pages of handwriting (thankfully neat in his case). They offer a fascinating glimpse into the process of composing Dracula. The bits he didn't use are just as interesting as those he did.

He was very thorough. He went to Romania and interviewed local people. He wrote long lists of Romanian words he might use. He researched boats that had sunk off the coast of Whitby and boats that carried their cargo to shore. He recorded any odd episode or story he could use. Just as we all do.

I have two types of notebook. There's always a general notebook that is carried almost everywhere, and filled with odd ideas, observations, scribblings of any kind. Those are a chaotic jumble that probably make little sense to anyone else. Then there are specific notebooks for each project. These show the genesis and evolution of a book. It's interesting later to see the bits that never made it, the ideas that look really stupid later, and how far the final book has wandered from the original idea or plan.

My notebooks will never be of real interest, like Stoker's, but I can't show his as the facsimile is copyright, so here's a peek inside mine as a poor substitute for the curious.

This is a Moleskin softcover brown notebook. On the cover is a printout of an early version of one of the covers of the series (the first cover we fixed on).

I always stick a picture on a notebook or folder as it's the quickest way to see which is which.

Inside... these are bits printed from the web. I needed to know exactly how a guillotine works and the position of the body of the victim just before execution. This continues on further pages. In case you ever need to know, there is a tilted bench that the beheadee lies on.

And this just goes to show that I don't always carry the notebook. These notes are made on the slips of paper that come in books ordered from the stacks in Cambridge University Library and then stuck in later.

I try to find pictures of the characters. This is a series of six books (seven if you include Shroud-Eating for Beginners, the guide for new vampires) and there should, all being well, be another series of six in 2013. It's useful to have a visual reference for each character to make sure they stay consistent - no sudden changes of hair colour, for example. This is Titania. I'm not showing you the modern characters in case the real people object.

And this is how Titania got her name. After I'd written Drop Dead, Gorgeous, I noticed similarities with A Midsnummer Night's Dream.

Some more characters - these are historical figures I've co-opted as vampires. They are Louis Pasteur (lower) and Dmitri Ivanovsky. Working with real people, it's important to make sure they look as they did and to write characters that seem to match their appearance. Pasteur is robust, lively, intelligent, friendly and relaxed. Ivanovsky is reserved, polite, intelligent. They are both in book 4, Every Drop of Your Blood.

All writers discuss their work with other writers they trust. If you have those discussions on the phone or face-to-face you have have to make notes if you don't want to forget the insights they offered. I spend a lot of time chatting online on Facebook or Skype with two very dear friends who are also writers. This is a Facebook chat about plot issues with one of those people, printed out and stuck in the notebook. I won't name her in case she minds, and I've blurred the picture for the same reason.

That's enough of  a peek from your passing train. My camera has run out of battery now. But writing this has made me realise how lucky I am compared with Stoker. I don't have to copy pictures laboriously by hand (just as well - they'd be rubbish); I can print things out and stick them in; I can use higlighters; I can stick in a transcript of a chat! And, perhaps best of all, I can make a digital copy or photocopy of it all in case - God forbid - I lose the real thing. Not that I have made a full copy.... Next task!


Mary Hoffman said...

And thank goodness we do all mostly still do this. Otherwise there would be nothing but computer drafts, probably with earlier ones deleted.

And what rich American university will want to buy our memory sticks?

Rebecca Brown said...

I loved this post! Wouldn't it be great to see inside the notebooks of other sas bloggers too to give us struggling wannabes lots of the inspiration & motivation i got from this?

Thanks so much for sharing!

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Savita Kalhan said...

Thanks for giving us a peek through your uncurtained window, Anne. It makes me want to go on more train journeys to peek some more!
I used to be more organised, but my notebooks are much more haphazard these days, which means I forget to stick in those important bits of paper, and sadly they end up lost. I will now endeavour to remedy that!

Kathleen Jones said...

This is really fascinating Anne. I'm always interested in process. My notebooks are a bit like yours - general one to carry around full of shopping lists and telephone numbers and scraps of conversation, and different notebooks for each project I'm working on. Thanks for sharing!

Inkpen said...

Thanks so much for this post - I like the idea of sticking in research as well. I have just come to the computer to transfer notes scrawled on the back of a receipt when I forgot my own Moleskin notebook! Why do so many shops print on the back of receipts these days as well as the front? What is a forgetful writer to do?

adele said...

This is lovely, Anne! I love having a good snoop in other people's notebooks. I slid over the guillotine stuff, though. Far too much info there for me!

Joan Lennon said...

Fascinating - and far more lovely than the stuffed file folders I use! Thanks for sharing!

Nicky said...

So organised. I have loads of notebooks but never actually write in any of them. Now I know how it should be done!

Myne said...

Curious cat that I am, I enjoyed that peek into your notebook, :)

Thanks for sharing your writing process.

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you all for your kind comments. Nicky, I've never been called organised before - *undeserved warm glow*. Inkpen, you are so right about shops printing on both sides of the receipt; it's so inconsiderate!

Pauline said...

'Uncurtained windows' captured my attention. I've just ripped down my curtain, and with the rush of light came a rush of ideas. Long Live Sunlight!!!

Linda Strachan said...

Loved this. I love notebooks and the delighted of starting a new one for a new book. But I am not as organised as you, Anne, and mine are normally just my own scribbles and not pasted in bits - which make it so much more interesting. Such a good idea.

Nicola Morgan said...

So interesting! My notebooks are not worth looking at and will definitely not be available for posterity, if for no other reason that when each page is finished with I rip it out. I like clean blank pages, not ones filled with my hand-writing!