Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Writers' Notebooks - 'A Junkyard of the Mind'

Coleridge Notebook - British Library
There's a new website from the British Library, Discovering Literature, giving the public a chance to see inside the notebooks of well known authors - appealing to anyone interested in the process of writing.

Writing is a mysterious series of steps. A reader sees the finished product; the glossy book looks neat and polished, but the journey to get there is different for each writer and is often a messy one!

Lawrence Norfolk (on Radio 3's recent radio programme 'Writers and their Notebooks') calls this type of notebook a 'Junkyard of the mind' - a depository for ideas, aspects of the weather, snippets of conversation, names of train stations, graffiti tags, observations, diagrams, sketches of characters and so on. AS Byatt spent around two years working on a book before 'finding' her characters; the notebook was the 'compost' where they gradually emerged. She tried writing a diary but burnt it after two weeks ('too obscene', she says) so her notebooks rarely contain anything personal. She knows posterity may be interested in them, so she sticks to her fictional musings.

Badisha's Notebooks - British Library (for what she calls her 'obsessive scribblings')
David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, uses his notebooks to write letters from his characters on what they think about the book they're in, their views on politics, God etc. He finds their register, use of language and develops their 'voice' this way, getting under their skin - but the material won't appear in the end product.

My Notebook
My own notebooks are transitory; I don't tend to go back to them as they're always attached to a particular novel and once the novel is done, the notebook is defunct. I like a spiral-bound one that lies flat and have one in practically every room of the house, so when I get an idea I can catch it wherever I am. Most ideas come when I've just got into bed or when I'm reading or watching something entirely different on TV! Somehow, by switching to 'not thinking' about my current book, messages pop up from my subconscious, pointing out holes in the plot and 'what ifs?'. The jottings include research I need to do for certain aspects of my stories, plot threads, details, queries about the plot, character traits and so on. I cross through the notes once they're transferred somewhere else - to my research file, main body of writing, novel 'scraps' - the bits I want to add, but don't yet know where.

According to Rachel Foss from the British Library, on-line Blogs and live Twitter feeds are the 'new notebooks'. Authors' websites are becoming a significant literary production - 'The 21st century incarnation of the notebook', she says.

Mark Twain's Notebook - Bancroft Library, California
What are your notebooks like? How do you use them? Are you intrigued by what happens behind the scenes - the hidden backstory - to a novel?
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train. Both books hit the Number One spot in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.