It’s always interesting to read other writers’ accounts of their approach to writing. Is it different from, or similar to, one’s own? Is any change noticeable over time in the way writers tackle particular genres or aspects of writing?
Baroness Orczy, creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel, wrote her memoirs during the late 1930s and 1940s, having had her first success as a published writer in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Writing of her novels set in France, she said
‘There is not a country lane the configuration of which I have in any way distorted. To me, had I changed the names or the positions of any actual place I would, I feel sure, have lost something of their reality, and been unable to infuse that reality into my narrative.’
‘Now with English places you would have to be almost superhumanly careful. Place but an oak tree twenty yards further than it is standing today and you would bring the wrath of a score of local readers on your head. Speak of some tiny footbridge over a rivulet one hundred and fifty years ago and of a certainty you would be told more in sorrow than in anger and with the addition of documentary evidence that that footbridge had only been in its present place one hundred and ten years.’
Some authors would benefit from paying as much attention to details as Baroness Orczy; such as the writer of Regency mysteries who had one character living at the corner of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue in London.
But I wonder how many people today would notice the kind of minute detail Baroness Orczy mentions. When so many changes have taken place within a relatively short period of time, and fewer people are accustomed to travelling at walking pace, taking note of their surroundings, many might not be aware of such things as oak trees and footbridges.
I do invent places myself, not so much because I’m afraid of making a mistake, but so I can arrange the geography to suit my plot. I hope that doesn’t make the narrative seem less real.
In 1921 Dorothy L. Sayers was living in London, taking temporary teaching jobs while trying to sell her first Lord Peter Wimsey novel.
She wrote to her parents,
‘It takes all one’s time and energy to invent even bad sensational stories.’
Most writers don’t have a choice about taking a day job as well as producing fiction, bad or otherwise; few novelists earn enough from writing alone.
Miss Sayers went on to say of the Lord Peter novel:
‘Every time I look at him he seems more feeble.’
Few writers will not have had a crisis of confidence about the book they have just finished. It is reassuring to know that even authors who were to be among the most highly regarded in their genre were subject to the same doubts.