6. Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint, People
“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”
READING ANY work of fiction is a symbiotic act. We the readers contribute our imagination to that of the writer, willingly entering his world, participating in the lives of its people and forming from the author’s words and images our own mental picture of people and places. The setting in any novel is therefore an important element of the whole book. Place, after all, is where the characters play out their tragicomedies, and it is only if the action is firmly rooted in a physical reality that we can enter fully into their world. This is not to suggest that setting is more important than characterisation, narrative and structure; all four must be held in creative tension and the whole story written in compelling language if the book is to survive beyond its first month of publication. Many readers if questioned would opt for characterisation as the vital element in fiction, and, indeed, if the characters fail to convince, the novel is no more than a lifeless unsatisfying narrative. But the setting is where these people live, move and have their being, and we need to breathe their air, see with their eyes, walk the paths they tread and inhabit the rooms the writer has furnished for them. So important is this identification that many novels are named for the place on which the action is centred; obvious examples are Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park, Howards End and Middlemarch, where the setting exerts a unifying and dominant influence on both the characters and the plot. I aimed to make this true of the River Thames in my novel Original Sin, where the river links both the more dramatic events of the story and the mood of the people who live or work near it. To one it is a source of continual fascination and pleasure, her riverside flat a symbol of ambition achieved, while to another the dark ever-flowing stream is a terrifying reminder of loneliness and death.
It was my story. A murder mystery. A who-done-it-and-got-away-with-it-until-he-wrote-about-it.
Some novelists in the canon of English fiction have created imaginary places in such detail and with so much care that they become real for both writer and reader. Anthony Trollope said of Framley Parsonage that he had added to the English counties, that he knew its roads and railways, its towns and parishes, and which hunts rode over it, and that there was “no name given to a fictitious site which does not represent to me a spot of which I know all the accessories, as though I had lived and wandered there.” Similarly, Thomas Hardy created Wessex, of which one can draw a map, a dream county which has “by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from.” Writers of detective fiction seldom have space to describe a setting in such detail, but although it may be done with more economy, the place should be as real to the reader as Barchester and Wessex. I think it important too that the setting, which being integral to the whole novel, should be perceived through the mind of one of the characters, not merely described by the authorial voice, so that place and character interact and what the eye takes in influences the mood and the action.
One function of the setting is to add credibility to the story, and this is particularly important with crime fiction, which often deals with bizarre, dramatic and horrific events which need to be rooted in a place so tangible that the reader can enter it as he might a familiar room. If we believe in the place we can believe in the characters. In addition the setting can from the first chapter establish the mood of the novel, whether of suspense, terror, apprehension, menace or mystery. We have only to think of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, of that dark and sinister mansion set in the middle of the fog-shrouded moor, to appreciate how important setting can be to the establishment of atmosphere. The Hound of Wimbledon Common would hardly provide such a frisson of terror.
But the setting of a detective story can emphasise the terror by contrast while, paradoxically, also providing a relief from horror. The poet W. H. Auden, for whom the reading of detective stories was an addiction, examined the genre in the light of Christian theology in his well-known essay “The Guilty Vicarage.” He states:
In the detective story, as in its mirror image, the Quest for the Grail, maps (the ritual of space) and timetables (the ritual of time) are desirable. Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of the murder… The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing-room carpet.
He believed, as I think do most British writers of the detective story, that the single body on the drawing-room floor can be more horrific than a dozen bullet-ridden bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets, precisely because it is indeed shockingly out of place.
I have used setting in this way to enhance danger and terror by contrast in a number of my novels. In A Taste for Death the two bodies, each with its head almost severed, are discovered in a church vestry by a gentle spinster and the young truant she has befriended. The contrast between the sanctity of the setting and the brutality of the murders intensifies the horror and can produce in the reader a disorientating unease, a sense that the ordained order has been overturned and we no longer stand on firm ground. In An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, my first book featuring the young woman detective Cordelia Gray, a particularly appalling and callous murder takes place in high summer in Cambridge, where wide lawns, sun-dappled stone and the sparkling river recall to Cordelia’s mind some words by John Bunyan: “Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gate of Heaven.” It is often these paths to hell, not the destination, which provide for a crime novelist the most fascinating avenues to explore.
Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages. The stain of suspicion cannot be allowed to spread too far if each suspect is to be a rounded, credible, breathing human being, not a cardboard cut-out to be ritually knocked down in the last chapter. And in a self-contained community-hospital, school, office, publishing house, nuclear power station-where, particularly if the setting is residential, the characters often spend more time with working colleagues than they do with their families, the irritation that can emerge from such cloistered and unsought intimacy can kindle animosity, jealousy and resentment, emotions which, if they are sufficiently strong, can smoulder away and eventually explode into the destructive finality of violence. The isolated community can also be an epitome of the wider world outside and this, for a writer, can be one of the greatest attractions of the closed communal setting, particularly as the characters are being explored under the trauma of an official investigation for murder, a process which can destroy the privacies both of the living and of the dead.
The village setting has always been popular-typically, of course, in Agatha Christie-since an English village is itself a closed society and one which, whether we live in a village or not, retains a powerful hold on our imagination, an image compounded of nostalgia for a life once experienced or imagined and a vague unfocused longing to escape the city for a simpler, less frenetic and more peaceful life. It is interesting how vividly we the readers create the rural setting for ourselves, often powerfully helped by images from television or film. I don’t think Agatha Christie has anywhere described in detail St. Mary Mead but we know the village street, the church, the cottage, genuinely old but untarnished by time, with its neat front garden, shining knocker and, within, Miss Marple, with her mixture of gentle authority and kindness, explaining to her latest maid that the dusting leaves something to be desired.
Settings, particularly landscapes, are often most effectively described when the writer uses a place with which he is intimately familiar. If we want to know what it is like to be a detective in twenty-first-century Edinburgh we can learn more from Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels than we can from any official guidebook, as we move with Rebus down the roads and alley ways of the city and into its pubs and its public and private buildings. Ruth Rendell has used East Anglia and London, both places with which she is familiar, for some of her most admired novels written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. East Anglia has a particular attraction for detective novelists: the remoteness of the east coast, the dangerous encroaching North Sea, the bird-loud marshes, the emptiness, the great skies, the magnificent churches and the sense of being in a place alien, mysterious and slightly sinister, where it is possible to stand under friable cliffs eaten away by the tides of centuries and imagine that we hear the bells of ancient churches buried under the sea.
Oxford has provided the setting for many detective stories by men and women who have lived or have been educated there, and who can walk with confident familiarity through its quads and down its famous streets. In the words of Edmund Crispin in his novel The Moving Toyshop: “It is true that the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns of England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons.” The air of Oxford has indeed proved peculiarly susceptible to fictional death and, although Cambridge has given us Professor Glyn Daniel’s Sir Richard Cherrington, there is no competition in the murder stakes. The modern writer who comes first to mind when one thinks of Oxford is Colin Dexter, who with his Inspector Morse has ensured that, in fiction, Oxford is the most murderous city in the U.K. Dorothy L. Sayers, Oxford-educated, used the city and her imaginary women’s college in Gaudy Night, and other detective novelists with whom we can walk these ancient and hallowed quads are Michael Innes, John C. Masterman and Margaret Yorke. Here too we have the power of contrast, a setting both beautiful and austere with which many readers will already be familiar, adding credibility to the plot while enabling them to contribute their own experience and visual images to that of the detective.
Setting in a more limited sense, particularly architecture and houses, is important to characterisation, since people react to their environment and are influenced by it. When an author describes a room in the victim’s house, perhaps the one in which the body is found, the description can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victim’s character and interests. Furniture, books, pictures, personal articles in cupboards and on shelves, all the sad detritus of the dead life tell their story. For this reason the place in which the body is found is particularly revealing, and I regard the description of the finding of the body as one of the most important chapters of a detective novel. To find a murdered corpse is a horrible, sometimes life-changing experience for most normal people, and the writing should be vivid and realistic enough to enable the reader to share the shock and horror, the revulsion and the pity. The emotions of that moment and the language used to convey them should, in my view, reflect the person who makes the discovery. In A Taste for Death the description is particularly horror-invoking with the frequent reiteration of the word “blood,” because that is how the gentle and kindly spinster Miss Wharton experiences the moment of discovering the two bodies with their heads almost severed. In contrast, when Commander Adam Dalgliesh nearly stumbles over the body of a woman on a Suffolk beach his emotions are inevitably those of a professional detective. So although he is intrigued by his different emotional responses, between being called to a body knowing roughly what he will find and coming upon it unexpectedly at night on a lonely beach, nevertheless, almost instinctively, he is careful not to disturb the scene and notes all the details with the experienced eyes of an investigating officer. In Dorothy L. Sayers’s first detective novel, Whose Body?, the corpse is found naked in the bath of a nervous and innocent architect, and the book begins with this image. The first question facing the police-and, of course, her detective Lord Peter Wimsey-is whether this was the corpse of Sir Reuben Levy, the missing Jewish financier. Whether the victim had or had not been circumcised would have answered the question at once, but this was a clue Miss Sayers was not permitted by her publishers to include in her novel, and no doubt had she done so there would have been an outcry among the respectable readers of the Golden Age.
The detective story is neither irrational nor romantic, and its clues are rooted in the reality and minutiae of everyday life. This means that British writers who look to a foreign country for their setting need not only a sensitive response to the country’s topography, speech and people, but a knowledge of its social structure, including the criminal justice system. Writers who have achieved notable success include Michael Dibdin (1947-2007), whose stories featuring the professional detective Inspector Aurelio Zen are set in Italy, a country in which he had resided. H. R. F. Keating’s Indian detective, Inspector Ganesh Vinayak Ghote of the Bombay Criminal Investigation Department, first appeared in The Perfect Murder in 1964. Ghote is attractively human, diffident and occasionally prone to error, but shrewd and intelligent, and it is remarkable how confident was Keating’s touch in describing a country which, when he brought Ghote to life, he had never visited. A comparatively recent arrival is Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, the proprietor of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe’s heart is as ample as is her frame, and although the most atrocious murders are unlikely to come her way, any injustice, large or small, engages her energies and compassion.
All these three characters, as well as their profession, have a private domestic life in which we can participate. The detective, whether professional or amateur, needs a domestic setting if the reader is to enter fully into his life, and most writers provide for their detective a known and familiar place in which he can be at home. The name Miss Jane Marple inevitably conjures up St. Mary Mead, and although Ruth Rendell’s Chief Inspector Wexford does occasionally travel outside England, we know that his natural place is Kings-markham in Sussex. Some detectives, of course, are more precisely housed. There can be very few aficionados of fictional murder who don’t know that 221B Baker Street is the address of Sherlock Holmes, that Lord Peter Wimsey lives in an apartment at 110A Piccadilly, Albert Campion in Bottle Street and Poirot in a modern London flat distinguished by the starkness and regularity of its contemporary furniture and, we may be sure, by the total absence of dust or disarray. If details of the apartments are not given, we can provide ourselves with a lively picture of these sanctums from the television series; indeed, it is often television rather than the books themselves that furnishes us with our pictures of both the characters and the setting.
And their houses are more than a living space for the detective hero. They provide for us, the readers, reassuring safe houses of the mind from which we too can venture forth vicariously to encounter murder and danger before returning to domestic comfort and safety. Readers of Dorothy L. Sayers, travelling home to mortgaged Metro land or worried by the threat of unemployment and the storm clouds over Europe, must have entered with relief into Lord Peter’s flat with the fire burning, shedding its light on the bronze chrysanthemums, the comfortable chairs and the grand piano, while Bunter deferentially offers them a glass of expensive sherry or vintage wine and Lord Peter entertains them by playing Scarlatti. Sherlock Holmes’s apartment, as described by Watson, perhaps offers a more dramatic and disturbing welcome, although we can rely on Mrs. Hudson to put things to right. All Holmes’s adventures start here, and it is to this sanctum that he returns, so that it becomes a safe haven for the reader who can share this assurance of safety and home comfort before setting out with Holmes and Watson on yet one more perilous adventure. Michael Innes has admitted that his hero’s natural setting was a great house and that Sir John Appleby found his way into those august dwellings largely because it was the kind of life he fancied. But for his creator the mansion or great country seat was really an extension of the sealed room, with the added advantage that it could define the territorial boundaries of the mystery more effectively and interestingly than could a cramped flat or semi-detached villa.
My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character; an example is Devices and Desires, which had its genesis while I was on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, standing on a deserted shingle beach. There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind, and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself standing in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide. Then, turning my eyes to the south, I saw the great outline of Sizewell nuclear power station and immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.
This moment of initial inspiration is always one of great excitement. I know that, however long the writing may take, I shall eventually have a novel. The idea takes possession of my mind and gradually over the months the book takes shape, the characters appear and become increasingly real to me, I know who will be murdered and where, when, how, why and by whom. I decide how my detective, Adam Dalgliesh, can logically be brought in to investigate outside the Metropolitan Police area. I began my research by visiting nuclear power stations in Suffolk and Dorset, speaking to the scientists and other staff and learning as much as I needed to know about nuclear power and the way a power station is run. As usual, all the people I consulted were unfailingly helpful. The novel which resulted from this research and the long months of writing began with that moment of solitude on an East Anglian beach.
One of the first decisions any novelist has to make, of equal importance to the choice of setting, is viewpoint. Through whose mind, eyes and ears should we, the readers, participate in the plot? Here the writer of detective stories has a particular problem arising from Monsignor Ronald Knox’s insistence that the reader should not be allowed to follow the murderer’s thoughts, a prohibition on which Dorothy L. Sayers so feelingly dwelt. But I wonder whether there might not be exceptions to Monsignor Knox’s rule. Surely there must be some moments when the murderer’s thoughts are not dominated by the enormity of what he has done and the risks of exposure. Could the writer not enter into his mind when he wakes in the small hours with memories of some traumatic event in his childhood which the writer can exploit in clue-making and use to give some idea of the killer’s character? And there must be other brief moments in the day when something other than his own peril occupies his mind. But the difficulty remains.
The first-person narrative has the advantage of immediacy and of reader identification and sympathy with the one whose voice he hears. It can also be an aid to credibility, since the reader is more likely to suspend disbelief in the more improbable twists in the plot when hearing the explanation from the person most concerned. “Looking back now I cannot really explain why I decided to put my wife’s body in the refuse sack, carry it with some difficulty to the boot of the car and drive a hundred and fifty miles to drop it over Beachy Head. But I was desperate to get away from the house as quickly as possible and it seemed a good idea at the time.” I doubt whether this passage has ever been penned, but we have all read some uncomfortably like it. But the disadvantage of a first-person narrative is that the reader can only know what the narrator knows, seeing only through his eyes and experiencing only what he experiences and, in general, it is more appropriate to the fast-action thriller than to the detective story. One of the most effective uses of first-person narrative is by Raymond Chandler. In the brilliant opening to The Big Sleep the reader learns from a few short sentences where we are, what the day is like, the occupation of the hero, something about his personality, details of the clothes he is wearing, and finally why he is waiting at that particular door.
The story told by the Watson figure is less restricting because we can get his view of the detective’s character and methods as well as the progress of the investigation, and was used with some success in the early days of the Golden Age. There is, however, the danger that if the character is portrayed as more than a functional necessity he will become too alive, too interesting and too important to the plot, competing as hero with the detective; if he is not vitally alive he becomes a superfluous if convenient mouthpiece for information which could be more subtly and interestingly conveyed.
Then there is the variation of the first-person narrative in which the story is told in the form of letters or in the actual voices of the characters, of which The Moonstone is a prime example. Dorothy L. Sayers was so admiring of Wilkie Collins’s achievement that she decided to follow his example and write a novel more ambitious than her existing work and which would not feature Lord Peter Wimsey In a letter to her scientific collaborator Eustace Barton, M.D., she wrote:
In this story… it is obvious that there must be a powerful love interest, and I am going to turn my mind to making this part of the book as modern and powerful as possible. The day of the two nice young people whose chaste affection is rewarded on the final page, has rather gone by.
Apart from the wish to do something new, she said she was looking forward to getting a rest from Lord Peter because “his everlasting breeziness does become a bit of a tax at times.” The novel, The Documents in the Case, was loosely based on the tragic Thompson-Bywaters murder, where a dull and unloved husband is killed by the young lover of his wife, and the story is told variously through letters from a young man living in the same house as the married couple, the other participants in the story, the killer, and newspaper reports giving at length the evidence from the coroner’s inquests. But Sayers knew that she hadn’t succeeded in her ambition. The love affair is too tawdry and uninteresting to generate the passion necessary to provoke murder, and the novel is a depressing read. Sayers herself wrote:
In my heart I know I have made a failure of it… It has produced a mingled atmosphere of dullness and gloom which will, I fear, be fatal to the book… I wish I could have done better with the brilliant plot.
It was an experiment she was not to repeat. No other crime novelist as far as I know has attempted to copy let alone emulate Wilkie Collins, but it would be interesting if someone were to try.
My own choice of viewpoint is partly authorial, a detached recorder of events, and partly to move into the minds of the different characters, seeing with their eyes, expressing their emotions, hearing their words. Most often the character will be Dalgliesh, Kate Miskin or a more junior member of the detective team, one of the suspects or a witness. This for me makes a novel more complex and interesting, and can also have a note of irony as this shifting viewpoint can show how differently we can all perceive the same event. I feel it is important, however, not to alter the viewpoint in any one chapter. The distinguished critic Percy Lubbock discussed the question of viewpoint in his 1921 book The Craft oft Fiction. The novelist, he said, can either describe the characters from outside, as an impartial or partial observer, or can assume omniscience and describe them from within, or can place himself in the position of one of them and affect to be in the dark as to the motives of the rest. What he must not do, however, is to mix his methods and change from one point of view to another-as Dickens had done in Bleak House and Tolstoy in War and Peace. But there is no rule relating to the novel which a genius can’t successfully circumvent-and I generally agree with E. M. Forster, who writes in his book Aspects of the Novel:
So next time you read a novel do look out for the “point of view”-that is to say, the relation of the narrator to the story. Is he telling the story and describing the characters from the outside, or does he identify himself with one of the characters? Does he pretend that he knows and foresees everything? Or does he go in for being surprised? Does he shift his point of view-like Dickens in the first three chapters of Bleak House? And if he does, do you mind? I don’t.
If we are talking of a genius, nor do I.
When I settled down in the mid-1950s to begin my first novel, it never occurred to me to make a start with anything other than a detective story. Mysteries were my favourite relaxation reading, and I felt that if I could write one successfully it would stand a good chance of acceptance by a publisher. I had no wish to write an autobiographical first novel based on my experience of childhood trauma, the war or my husband’s illness, although I have come to believe that most fiction is autobiographical and some autobiography partly fiction. I have always been fascinated by structure in the novel, and detective fiction presented a number of technical problems, mainly how to construct a plot which was both credible and exciting with a setting which came alive for readers, and characters who were believable men and women faced with the trauma of a police investigation into murder. I therefore saw the detective story as an ideal apprenticeship for someone setting out with small hope of making a fortune but with ambitions to be regarded eventually as a good and serious novelist.
One of the first decisions was, of course, my choice of detective. If I started today it is likely that I would choose a woman, but this was not an option at the time when women were not active in the detective force. The main choice, therefore, was whether to have a male professional or an amateur of either sex, and as I was aiming at as much realism as possible, I chose the first option and Adam Dalgliesh, named after my English teacher at Cambridge High School, took root in my imagination.
I had learnt a lesson from Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, both of whom started out with eccentric detectives with whom in time they became thoroughly disenchanted. So I decided to begin with a less egregiously bizarre character and ruthlessly killed off wife and newborn son in order to avoid involving myself in his emotional life, which I felt would be difficult successfully to incorporate into the structure of the classical detective story. I gave him the qualities I personally admire in either sex-intelligence, courage but not foolhardiness, sensitivity but not sentimentality, and reticence. I felt that this would provide me with a credible professional policeman capable of development should this first novel be the first of a series. A serial detective has, of course, particular advantages: an established character who does not have to be introduced afresh with each novel, a successful career in crime-solving which can add gravitas, an established family history and background and, above all, reader identification and loyalty. It is common for new hardback and paperback novels to carry the name of the detective on the jacket as well as that of the author and the title, so that prospective readers can be reassured that they will indeed encounter an old friend.
And what of the other characters, particularly the victim and the unfortunate suspects? They should certainly be more than stock figures provided out of necessity but in the Golden Age were rarely in themselves of particular interest; nothing more was required of the victim than that he or she should be an undesirable, dangerous or unpleasant person whose death need cause no grief to anyone. It is certainly not easy to make the victim sympathetic, since he must necessarily have provoked murderous hatred for diverse reasons in a small group of people and usually, once dead, could be safely carried off to the mortuary, where he was unlikely to receive the compliment of an autopsy. He has served his purpose and can be put out of mind. But if we do not care, or indeed to some extent empathise with the victim, it surely hardly matters to us whether he lives or dies. The victim is the catalyst at the heart of the novel and he dies because of who he is, what he is and where he is, and the destructive power he exercises, acknowledged or secret, over the life of at least one desperate enemy. His voice may be stilled for most of the novel, his testimony given in the voices of others, by the detritus he leaves in his rooms, his drawers and cupboards, and by the scalpels of the forensic pathologist, but for the reader, at least in thought, he must be powerfully alive. Murder is the unique crime, and its investigation tears down the privacy of both the living and the dead. It is this study of human beings under the stress of this self-revelatory probing which for a writer is one of the chief attractions of the genre.
The suspects should, I feel, be sufficient in number to provide the puzzle, and more than five is difficult if each is to be a credible living and breathing human being with motives that the reader will find convincing. And here again is the difficulty. In the Golden Age readers could accept that the victim was killed because he had damaging information about the murderer’s sexual immorality, but today this will hardly suffice. People happily and lucratively confess their sexual adventures to the press with few if any detrimental consequences to career or reputation. But the fashion in public infamy changes; today the mere suggestion of paedophilia would be damaging probably beyond redemption. Money, particularly great wealth, is always a credible motive for murder, as is revenge and that deep-seated hatred which makes it almost impossible to tolerate the continued existence of an enemy. In one of my novels Dalgliesh remembers the words of a detective sergeant under whom he had served as a new recruit. “All motives can be explained under the letter L: lust, lucre, loathing and love. They’ll tell you the most dangerous is loathing but don’t you believe it, boy; the most dangerous is love.” Certainly the desire to avenge someone deeply loved, to protect or save them, is always a credible motive and for such a murderer we may feel a measure of sympathy and self-identification. In the words of Ivy Compton-Burnett in a conversation with M. Jourdain in 1945:
I never see why murder and perversion of justice are not normal subjects for a plot, or why they are particularly Elizabethan or Victorian, as some reviewers seem to think… I believe it would go ill with many of us, if we were faced with a strong temptation, and I suspect that with some of us it does go ill.
In the detective story it frequently goes very ill indeed.
When I have spoken of my craft over the past decades, one of the commonest questions the audience asks is whether I draw my characters from real life. I tended at first to say no, meaning that I have never taken people from life-members of the family, friends or colleagues-and after a few judicious alterations in appearance or character, put them in a book. But my answer was disingenuous. Of course I take my characters from real life; from where else can I take them? But the person I look to most is myself for experience endured or rejoiced in over nearly ninety years of living in this turbulent world. If I need to write about a character afflicted with such shyness that every new job, every encounter, becomes a torment, I am blessed not to suffer such misery. But I know from the embarrassments and uncertainties of adolescence what such shyness can feel like and it is my job to relive it and find the words to express it. And characters grow like plants in an author’s mind during the months of writing, seeming to reveal more and more of themselves. As Anthony Trollope said in his Autobiography:
They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them… He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false, and how far true and how far false. The depth and the breadth, and the narrowness and the shallowness of each should be clear to him.
And however well I think I know my characters, they reveal themselves more clearly during the writing of the book, so that at the end, however carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned. It feels, indeed, as if the characters and everything that happens to them exists in some limbo of the imagination, so that what I am doing is not inventing them but getting in touch with them and putting their story down in black and white, a process of revelation, not of creation. But the process of creation remains mysterious. One writer who has attempted to explain it is E. M. Forster. The well-known passage may be a little high-flown, a little exaggerated in the importance Forster ascribes to the subconscious, but it comes with the authority of the author of A Passage to India, and I think most artists, whatever their medium, feel that it gets close to at least part of the truth.
What about the creative state? In it a man is taken out of himself. He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious, and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experiences, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art… And when the process is over, when the picture or symphony or lyric or novel (or whatever it is) is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth. [E. M. Forster, The Raison d’Etre of Criticism in the Arts]