Mental Image

Insert glib quote about life imitating art, or something, here.

It has been a week of not much writing and lots of looking. I haven’t planned it this way, but a batch of similar tasks have all cropped up together over the past week or so.

I have been looking at logos and mock up web pages for a new project (you will hear about this soon, and first, o reader  – I promise) and wrestling with the problem of getting the ideas about images out of my head and into an email so that my partner in this project and our designer can see them too.

I’ve also been making lists of locations in Cold Light and discussing the pros and cons of each of them with the digital marketing person at Sceptre. She’s taking my ideas and her own and working them into a brief for a film production company. They’ll use the brief to make a trailer for the book. The idea, I think, is to have me in some of the settings reading bits of the book to bring the locations to life.

When I was writing Cold Light I imagined the river freezing over in icy chunks that were inches thick. It suited me to believe it could happen though in my heart of hearts I doubted it. The cold weather we’ve had over the past couple of weeks has pleased me because the river really did freeze over. Kim took he picture of the Ribble opposite and also recently disproved my theory that fish can live in frozen ponds as long as there’s an air hole in the ice.

So all this thinking about setting, and location reminded me of a conversation I had with a member of the audience during an MLF / Rainy City Stories event about Writing and Place late last year. The three of us (me, Claire Dudman, Nicholas Royle) were talking about using real places in fiction. I said I’d used Preston for Cold Light, but taken some liberties, changed a few things around – for my own convenience and because I didn’t want to depict the place exactly, but write more or less how I felt about it (hence the river freezing over  – which at the time I didn’t think was possible.)

I made a hash of explaining it, but I think I meant that the atmosphere and emotions of a place were more true and real and interesting for me than street names, real bus routes, distance between parks and shopping centres, Debenhams’ policy on shoplifters. There are Facts and ‘facts’ about a place. And the audience member said, ‘well why call it Preston at all then?’ which was a good question, and stumped me, until I realised on the way home (spirit of the staircase) that I hadn’t actually mentioned Preston by name at all in the book – just other things that made it obvious, like the name of the motorway and the river and the shape and size of our very special multi storey car-park.

Us Prestonians have got some fantastically grotty places – I’ve been revisting my memories of them to find pictures to show to the people in charge of making a film that will sum up Cold Light in four minutes or less. The only problem is that, especially in the not-grotty park, the locations of 1997 are not the same now. So not only could I never find pictures of the fictional Preston I’ve bludgeoned into existence with my keyboard, but the pictures that will appear on the film trailer will be more than a decade out of date.

I know that’s okay. I know that the trailer, the same as the book, is interested in evoking rather than describing a place. In this case, a pretend one.

But all the same, here I am making lists of  locations to film in, finding photographs on flickr and fretting because the old bandstand isn’t there any more and things in the trailer aren’t exactly going to look the way they do in the book. The only place it is real is in my head. The film trailer and the map I am making and the other bits and pieces that make use of real places and pictures to describe what it might look like are just approximations of it.

With A Kind of Intimacy, when people have mental pictures of Annie or her house that don’t quite match up to mine, I can shrug – the book is as much yours as it is mine now. She can be six foot tall for you and around my significantly-below-average height to me – it doesn’t matter too much, and the fact that the reader is the co-creator of the novel – bringing the pictures to life and using the words as their jumping off place – well, that’s what books are for, isn’t it?

Perhaps all this anxiety I’ve found in rooting about for images and trying to find the exact right picture to show the film production company what the park where Emma and Lola do their drinking should really, really look like, is just a way of not letting go, not giving the reader room to make her own pictures. And I think it’s because now it’s 2011 and the book will be published This Year and I’m getting nervous about having to let go of it whether I want to or not, and a little bit because over the past month I’ve seen parts of Cold Light become real before my eyes.

Which is unsettling. 

11 responses to “Mental Image”

  1. Jo Bell says:

    I really am loving your blog nowadays. You have such a good balance of contemplating the writing process and telling others what you are up to. It’s very generous and expansive, a real pleasure to read. Cheers m’dear.

  2. Angi says:

    Thought-provoking, as always. On the subject of images, I’m stuggling to read the text over the background. I only resolved the issue by copying and pasting into word… such is the commitment of you blog readers! 🙂

  3. Yes, a really interesting posting Jen. I’ve always been afriad to mention places by name for fear I would invoke a barrage of ‘that’s not what it’s like’ from readers. As with the images individual readers take from a story, no two people have the same interpretation of a location.

    And I should think its a very hard thing to let a film company try to replicate what you can see so clearly in your head with ‘Cold Light’.

    Sam x

  4. Paul Lamb says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that readers are going to dress a character or decorate a room or envision a town however they imagine it, often despite of what I may say in the way of descriptive detail. Unless a detail is urgently important, I don’t tend to stress it and will be vague about it. It was Maud Newton who described those break-in-the-narrative inventories of a character’s clothing as “Nancy Drew Moments” after the way they tended to occur in those novels.

    There is a lock on the Mississippi River north of St. Louis where I would go to look at the eagles in winter. Floes of ice from the frozen north would come down the river and pile up behind the lock. You could hear them grinding against each other in their frustration.

  5. @ Jo Thank you. I wonder what prompted the change? I didn’t set out to write differently, but I think because I’ve been talking about blogging a lot with other people recently as part of my teaching work, and emphasising what a great tool for reflecting on your writing process it can be, and how the reflection on the process is really important to improving your writing, then this blog has naturally become more thoughtful in this direction. Although I can’t promise not to witter about BT and cacti any more either.

    I think I’ve come to the conclusion, through writing and thinking about this blog post, that the writing process isn’t done after you’ve finished the book. There’s another stage – getting to the point where you’re almost disinterested in the characters and don’t feel that ownership of them any more. I am not quite there yet.

    @Angi hmm. What browser are you using? If you have trouble, you can subscribe in your reader or get the updates emailed to you…?

    @Paul I see what you mean. And it’s interesting you mention Nancy Drew because it’s crime fiction, I think, that is often so fond of facts and details about locations. I wonder why that is? I don’t really like long descriptive passages in books, and I don’t tend to describe what my characters look like too much either – unless, like you say, it’s urgent or significant in some way. I think perhaps detail about facts and places and settings is always urgent in crime fiction – because it’s possible it could be a clue, or a not-clue, or a red-herring. I know I read something about that somewhere. P D James does these lists of facts really well.

    @Sam I worry about that too. I keep remembering the story about James Joyce, who wrote Dubliners while he was living elsewhere – and kept writing home (to his sister, I think?) and asking her to check the length of journeys his characters made, and views from certain points along the way. Accuracy in that way isn’t that important to me, but I still don’t look forward to justifying myself to people who will (I can guarentee it) email me and say, ‘but the shopping centre’s never had a fountain in it!’

  6. Litlove says:

    I’m new to your site, but following through on a comment at Vulpes Libres. I’m intrigued by the idea of making a film to promote a book. Part of the difficulty with film adaptations is that tying novels down to specific locations and real people can reduce that luminous dimension of the imagination, where every part of the ‘reality’ of the story fizzes with possibility. I suppose I feel that stories are best sold with other words rather than other pictures, but then, any promotion is so valuable these days. Has the book changed in your own mind from searching for real counterparts to your mental images, do you think?

  7. @Litlove

    Not changed in my own mind, no – Cold Light was based on places that I knew very well so a lot of the settings were very clear to me before I started trying to write about them for the novel, or for the purposes of writing the brief.

    I think Sceptre make a really good job with their book trailers – here’s a link to the trailer for Emily Mackie’s book. I think they manage to evoke the feel of the novel and the characters without taking away the room the readers need to imagine things for themselves.

  8. kim mcgowan says:

    I think your style of writing and you way of reading aloud will lend themselves perfectly to a Emily Mackie type of trailer. I am looking forward to that almost as much as I am to the book being published. Do you know who will narrate the audiobook yet?

    I don’t think your frozen pond theory is incorrect – otherwise wise-inuits wouldn’t drill holes in the ice to catch fish, would they? I think the problem in the park was that the pond was concrete lined and relatively shallow so all the water froze into a block. It is the first time I’ve seen it happen.

  9. So it wasn’t a lid of ice on the water, but the whole thing was a kind of fishy ice lolly?


    although I don’t think fish feel the cold, so perhaps it isn’t a bad way to go?

    I’m getting more and more nervous about publication, but very excited about the trailer. Perhaps it’s only really there to distract the neurotic author?

    I don’t know about the audio book yet. Do you have someone in mind? I’d quite like Daphne from Fraiser to do it…

  10. kim mcgowan says:

    I’d say Daphne from Fraiser sounds a bit too old. My choices are Jane Horrocks, Sarah Lancashire (not because they’ve got Horrocks or Lancashire in their names), Juliet Stevenson (not because she’s been in the same room as Alan Rickman) or Tilda Swinton because I’m in love with her (no really) and because she’d be dead good.

  11. ooh. I Like Tilda. 🙂

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