How some writing starts

Father 3I have been working on a piece of writing (the same piece I have been struggling to finish for months), which I shall call a ‘fictionalised memoir’. It all came about following a conversation with my eldest daughter, who voiced that she would like me to tell her more of her grandfather (my father), as she had never known him, my dad having died before her birth. I started by jotting down things about his character; talents, hobbies etc., when I stopped writing and began chewing the end of my pen instead. My father was worth more than a few facts; he was a very kind, interesting, hard-working entrepreneurial type, with a cracking sense of humour and a passion for music and art. His friends loved him, as did I. He deserved a story.  

I began to write notes of how I would plot my story. Clearly the family was to be the focus, and the main characters the parents, but as I’d found their relationship troublesome and confusing growing up, I immediately wondered if I was able to distance myself enough, in order to make their fictional characters authentic. I wanted to show perspectives of both, while keeping the father’s story foregrounded. Hm. Questions and more questions. How much of a fictional account would it be? How many characters? What point of view should I use? The usual kind of quiz a writer usually puts themselves through. I began by trying out names for the family. To have my ‘father’s’ character as authentic as possible, I chose the name, derived from his own – Jack. His wife became Kathleen and the four children, Colin, James, Sophia and Beverly. I suppose I should have started writing at this point, but I wanted more clarity on whose point of view the story should come from.

I had recently re-read Tim Winton’s Cloud Street, in which he lets many of his characters speak for themselves, using various perspectives, and it works fantastically well. I read it again, Tim Winton Cloud Streetwith a focus on how he had achieved this. To return to a book which I had read for enjoyment alone,  and then to set about closely analysing the mechanics of the writing, was enlightening. Winton has used just about all points of view throughout the narration, and it all works so well. He’s kept the fluidity, or transitions within the story paramount, as he brings on each character to his writer’s stage. There is no ‘hiccup’ or a feeling of discontinuity as he does this. Often, when there’s a change of character, time or place, the chapter is marked with a person’s name, a date, or place to denote this. Not so Tim Winton. In this book he uses double-line spacing, as other authors do, but where he differs from others, is that the changeover is marked with a word or a short phrase, which has been plucked from the essentials of the chapter. It’s intriguing. It makes you want to find out what happens. It is very successful.


Wow, is what I thought. And, I think I’d like to try something like that. Then it occurred to me, that all the while I was reading, I was reminded of something – the wild rambling old house with its eccentric household, resembled my original childhood home. Our house wasn’t double storied, but the stud was high. It was a building in desperate need of repair, and, if it was to be judged against the neighbouring homes, one that definitely stuck out from the crowd (yes, like a sore thumb) .
House image (circa 1950).

I had the setting of my story in place, and the characters, all it needed was for me to start the story. I am not saying that I thought I could possibly become another Tim Winton – if only – nor to copy him, but I could l think of him as a teacher. I wanted to learn from him.

There were so many great episodes to remember about my dad, and so I began with one which had stuck in my head, when Jack bought a dinghy. Find an excerpt (and first draft) of To grin and bear below, which follows Delivery Day at the start of the chapter. Note: The story’s title is yet to be decided.

Kathleen hauled on the floral dress with ripped armholes and grumbled as she folded the bed base into the settee position; a daily ritual and even bigger chore. “I’m making a cuppa before sticking my head out there,” she shouted at Jack. They had argued late into the night about the jolly boat and be blowed if she was going to succumb to his charms, just yet. The French doors (what a misnomer) were open and she breathed in the scent of sweet peas she’d planted last spring. She glanced at the pile of fabrics on the treadle machine, sighed deeply, lifted the lid of the upright piano, bashed out the Black and White Rag, and left the room – the same room which doubled as their bedroom.  She boiled the jug, her black mood adjusting to the shape of the day. She put plates, spoons and a cereal box on the bench and wandered out the back carrying mugs of tea, through the lean-to-cum-washhouse-cum-workshop. Everything doubled as something else in the McPhee household. That’s for blooming sure.
   The dinghy lay in the long grass like a beached whale, white paint flaking, Jack and his mates cooing over it like lovesick teens.
   “I thought dinghy’s were small conveyances,” she said, placing the tea on the lip of the fountain, which no longer functioned – of course.
   Jack knew to be concerned when Kathleen’s voice dropped an octave, and prepared his response as he supped on his tea.
   That smile. “Yep, it is a little large – granted. But, this is no ordinary dinghy. We’ve a Clinker-built boat here. All wood.”
   “I know you’ve come from Nordic stock, but isn’t this taking it a bit far?” Kathleen nodded towards Tommy, and Bert the builder, silly old coot. Builder? Couldn’t even fix his own bike.
   Under Tommy’s  orders, Jack and Bert began positioning the bricks in strategic rows, on a slab of old concrete to the rear of the house, then lengths of 4”x2” were laid down. It took the three grown men, plus Colin and James giving their penny’s worth, to carry the dinghy to its resting place. That didn’t escape Kathleen’s attention.
   “Tea, boys? Breakfast, kids.” She was about to call ‘or you’ll be getting it for lunch,’ but let the words drop, as the children had clearly fallen in love with the idea of a dinghy and had joined in the venture with more enthusiasm than a trip to the pictures could muster.
   She smiled, despite her misgivings, and wondered when the children would figure out that they lived thirty miles from the sea and that the truck wasn’t rigged with a tow bar …

6 thoughts on “How some writing starts

  1. Pingback: Don’t rubbish that first draft | ARTISTRY

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