If you are lucky, every now and then you get a light bulb moment while writing. Suddenly the murky waters clear, and you can see clearly what you are trying to achieve. Most of the time we stumble onwards, feeling about in the darkness. For me, one such lightbulb moment came half way through the writing by novel Little Bird. I knew what the storyline was, who my characters were, how the plot had to work to achieve what I wanted, but what I didn’t know, was how it would all come together to make sense of what I was trying to express. Story is never just about story. There is always something else going on below the surface.
Confession: I’m a closet academic. I love nothing more than reading research papers, writing essays and discussing technique and theory. It was while prepping for one of the writing workshops I teach at Queen’s University Open Learning, that I remembered my old favourite, Viktor Shklovsky. He wrote an essay in 1917, entitled Art as Technique, in which he reasoned that the purpose of art is to make the familiar unfamiliar: defamiliarization or estrangement. He asserts that by presenting something familiar as if it the writer is witnessing it and describing it for the first time, it heightens and lengthens our sense of perception.
Shklovsky asserts that “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” Crucially the purpose is not just aesthetic, but rather to draw out the sensations that things inspire or arouse, “as they are perceived and not as they are known”.
Call me a nerd, but I love this stuff!
It was with Shklovsky in mind, that I realised what I was trying to do with my novel. My protagonist, Anna Cole, was on secondment to Belfast from Cardiff. Through Anna’s fresh eyes I was able to show Belfast and Northern Ireland anew, to myself and to my readers. Anna’s character enabled me “to make the stone stony.”
An example of this occurs in chapter five:
Anna looked over to the girl with hair dyed a blue-black colour cut in a razor-sharp bob, giving her a hard look, as if she was trying to be intimidating. She wore stylised make up, a cat’s eye flick of dense ebony eyeliner, precise and clean and a ruby red matt lipstick. It was a uniform of sorts. Anna wished she could have enough interest in herself to devise a style, but she had never been good with make-up, preferring to rely on a quick smudge of mascara and a sweep of coral blusher to warm her pale complexion.
‘Don’t mind him,’ Holly said, without taking her eyes off her computer screen. ‘He’s a gobshite.’
Anna looked perplexed, unsure of the colloquialism.
‘Full of shit? Comprehendy vous?’
‘Yeah, I get it.’ Anna said staring at her.
‘We’re all under a lot of stress. Murder of Declan Wells’ daughter has everyone on edge.’
‘I’m sure. One of your own always hurts the most,’ Anna offered.
‘Nah she isn’t one of us,’ Holly said finally taking her eyes of the screen giving Anna a once over look. ‘Not that we think that way these days,’ Holly added.
‘I thought Declan Wells worked with the force?’
‘Yeah, he used to – forensics section, psychologist. He’s a doctor, not a real cop. Never got his hands dirty on the job.’
Anna absorbed the conversation realising she had considered the murder of Dr Wells’ daughter to be more personal to the force. She found it unsettling when ‘one of your own’ didn’t include your work colleague.
Anna is experiencing her first insight into how the police service of Northern Ireland is different. She is experiencing her job as a detective afresh, discovering her familiar job as something alien and new. By transporting Anna from Cardiff, the place she has grown up and worked in, to Belfast, she helps me as the writer to see the people and the place I know so well, afresh. Or as our old friend Viktor Shklovsky says to defamiliarise the place to myself and in doing so I can allow the reader to experience a heightened perception of it.
The old adage ‘write what you know’, is limiting. Sometimes you have to experience the place and people you know intimately anew in order to inspire that sense of heighten perception in your reader. Really what we want as readers is to feel, to feel something deeply, and to be made see something we have always been familiar with in a new, fresh way. This is what makes writing exciting and interesting. So, if you find yourself struggling with your work-in-progress, ask yourself, how can I make the stone stony?
(c) Sharon Dempsey
About Little Bird:
Forensic psychologist, Declan Wells, is dealing with the aftermath of a car bomb during the Troubles in Belfast, which has left him in a wheelchair. But that is only the start of his problems.
Welsh Detective, Anna Cole is running away from a dead-end relationship and the guilt of her mother’s death. She hopes secondment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland will provide a distraction.
There is a killer on the streets targeting young women and leaving behind macabre mementoes to taunt the police.
Can Declan and Anna work together to catch the deranged killer before he strikes again?
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