Everybody’s approach to writing is different. I know one author who can only write in bed on a laptop. Someone else I came across writes on sheets of letter-writing paper and then sellotapes the next page to the top and continues on until they have a roll of hundreds of pages. As for me, I write longhand on A4 refill pad pages and have a target of ten or twelve pages per chapter before I staple the lot together and move on to the next one. My ability to type is limited, and so I rely on a variety of friends to type the chapters for me for an agreed fee which seems hardly fair given my poor handwriting! Inevitably, we all have different approaches, too, in relation to the task of creating characters, and this is what I’d like to explore a little in this piece.
I think it’s fair to say that I belong to the school of ‘character-driven’ writing. For me, the character is the most important component part of the novel, and, consequently, that has to be right before the book can work as a complete piece of art. My first three novels had, as their main male protagonist, people who were, certainly in part, autobiographical. To be fair, I think that’s probably the case with most writers when they begin writing novels. The old “write what you know” rule of thumb quite often means that in order to be authentic we draw on our own experiences when creating at least some of our characters. This time around, however, for me, this rule of thumb disappeared out the window with the creation of Horace Winter, the protagonist in my latest novel Horace Winter Says Goodbye.
Horace Winter’s name was the first thing I came up with and it is an amalgam of sorts of the names of two people I came across in the Law Library when I first began working as a barrister a quarter of a century ago. Horace Porter was a man who kept pigs in a former railway carriage at the bottom of his garden. Lionel Winder was the leading authority on whether or not the title to property was good and he was also a member of the Plymouth Brethren. I wanted to combine the names but I felt that Lionel Porter sounded like a song-writer, and that if I used Winder as the surname people wouldn’t be sure how to pronounce it, so I decided on Horace Winter.
Once I had the name I began to write and I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea where the story came from after that point, except that I knew that I had to write it. Over the course of almost ten years I wrote about Horace and rewrote his life and was aided and abetted in my endeavour by two different agents and a couple of editors. The final book is about seventy-five thousand words, but there is also a further sixty-odd thousand words which exists in a “discard” file. The result, I hope, is the story of a man who has grown and grown over the years to be so real to me that I now believe him to be real. My family, and my close friends, have lived with Horace over the last decade. Routinely, they’d ask me how Horace is getting on, and even my children sometimes see something and say “that’s a real Horace Winter kind of situation/event/scene.”
So what is it about Horace that has made him so much a part of my life? It is difficult to say really, except to posit perhaps that sometimes characters do take on a life of their own beyond the control, or at least the conscious control, of the writer. Horace Winter is obsessed with butterflies and moths and one of his quirks is that he evaluates people he meets as either butterflies or moths in an attempt to avoid errors of judgment about them. This is a trait that I have to some extent begun to take on myself as a consequence of writing about and living with Horace for so long. For me he is real, and I fully expect to see him when I drive down the street where he lives in Ranelagh, or when I pass by the building on the corner of Capel Street which is the Leinster Savings and Loan Bank where he worked for almost fifty years in the novel.
And yet, despite this utter belief in Horace, I continue to find so little of myself in him that I have now begun to believe that I may be approaching a stage in my writing where I can create credible characters who are not, inevitably, part-me. This is a big step for me as I think it may open a new phase in my writing where I can continue to get a little better with each book and explore things and people in a way which is new to me and (hopefully!) interesting to others.
Writing is not easy, but it can be unimaginably rewarding when it works. A well-known writer said to me, after I’d had my first novel published (almost 20 years ago):
“Writing books is like making paper boats. You pick up a blank sheet of paper and make the best boat you can and then you place it carefully on the surface of the water and watch it disappear around the bend in the stream. Then, you pick up another sheet of paper and start all over again and hope that you’ve learned something from making the previous boat.”
Good luck to Horace Winter and all who sail with him!
(c) Conor Bowman
Author photo (c) Lesley Wingfield
About Horace Winter Says Goodbye:
Meet Horace Winter and fall in love with life again …
Horace Winter has led an unexceptional life. Ever since that long-ago day, when the Very Bad Thing happened, he prefers to spend time with his butterfly and moth book instead of with other human beings – an interest was passed on to him by his father.
But shortly after his retirement from his job as an assistant bank manager, Horace receives some devastating news and is forced to confront the life he has led (or hasn’t led). As he does, he meets Amanda. And Max. He gets a man jailed (sort of) and rescues the man’s son (sort of). He discovers a letter his father never posted, and sets off on a quest that changes everything.
As Horace begins to let life in, he starts to experience a world which had almost entirely passed him by. Will he discover that man he was meant to be before it’s too late?
Order your copy online here.