On Being A Professional Writer No. 7: Connections

Observatory, Reading & Writing

images Stay with me on this one: I’m out to prove a point.

In the comments section of the last post on sounds, TangoDancer asks if anyone still whistles tunes. I’m an inveterate whistler, and always have been, which makes me think it’s a hereditary thing; my father whistled constantly. Hardly anyone does now.

A little research seems to suggest that our old enemy class is behind the change. Whistling was seen as something people did outdoors, and people who spent a lot of time outdoors were more likely to be working class. Silence was bred in middle-class homes. For the same reason, a sun-tan was also seen as common until the 1920s, when it was popularised in the South of France.

As Noel Coward wrote in his song ‘Children Of The Rich’, ‘Mentally congealed lilies of the field, they lie in flocks along the rocks because they have to get a tan.’ Although a tan went from being something you associated with manual labour to a sign of wealth (i.e.. you had leisure time), whistling was also a privacy invasion in urban areas, as was making any sort of physical noise.

The British have always been acutely aware of invading the space of others. From the habit of cupping a cigarette the wrong way around inside the hand to endless apologising (there was one a very funny commercial consisting entirely of the word ‘sorry’) we have always confined ourselves. Even British gardens  came to symbolise this. In the book ‘How England Made the English: From Why we Drive on the Left to Why we Don’t Talk to our Neighbours’ author Harry Mount points out that this privacy led to a national obsession with gardening  (apparently the British have more gardens and spend more time working in them than anywhere else in the world).

Hoever the new guardedness with which we all treat one another does, I think, have deleterious effects. In the West Indies we went to a street party, the kind where old ladies open up the front rooms of their houses to serve food, gigantic speakers are rigged up in the middle of the street and everyone serves home-made rum. I’ve always loved these events, where you get to meet everyone from the mayor to the town crazy – but now the atmosphere was careful and ridiculously polite – what is the point of such events if they’re all so well behaved?

It took me many years to break me of the habit of always saying sorry. I had been raised by parents who constantly apologized for being a nuisance when they should have been the ones being apologized to. There’s an annoying English response that drives me crazy.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘Well, only if you’re making one.’

How did we become so cowed? Was it something to do with the seventies, a time when so many people appeared to have caught disappointment as if it were the measles? Parliamentary speeches were either filled with toothless union bile or the damp drizzle of appeasement. Fire and pride and joy had been misplaced. In smoky bars and steamed-up buses, downbeaten individuals couldn’t wait to offer up an apology. When served inedible food – ‘sorry, but this chicken seems to be frozen in the middle’, when poured a bad drink – ‘sorry, is there any chance of an ice cube?’ it was a triumph of environment over heredity.

Overseas visitors still acquire the habit of English apology within seconds of arrival. I prefer the kind of local events where they let tiny kids let off fireworks and you can’t move for broken glass at the end – they’re celebrations of life. And I want to sit up in the kind of late night bar they visit in the movie ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’. Where I can whistle and drink and there’s a slight possibility that if I’m really stupid I might get robbed at gunpoint.

How did we get from whistling to guns? Connections.

For me, it’s one of the writer’s most essential tools. When you research, you make notes on the subject you seek to understand, but those notes can’t be taken in isolation. They rely on a complex Venn diagram of factors, and by exploring them you often find something more interesting than the point you started at.

This is particularly true when researching period, and it’s amazing how blinkered authors who have followed writing courses can get. For example, you can’t write about Jack the Ripper (as if there’s anything left to say) without researching Jews in East London, the popular songs of the period, other criminal cases at the time and a wealth of other mitigating factors. Then you throw out all the bits that don’t interest you, keeping in the parts that do – even if they’re not relevant to the story – and knit the whole thing together.

Connections are the key to lifting an ordinary book into something unputdownable.

19 comments on “On Being A Professional Writer No. 7: Connections”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Do you remember a BBC program of quite a few years back called Connections? It led you from somewhere back in the mists of time to something modern like aniline dyes and then on to the latest thing in that line. It was fascinating to make those connections. I was just at a display of maps from the 1400’s to the end of the period of exploration and it was easy to follow the connections there from trade routes to national security to curiosity. I just finished A.D. Scott’s first novel (I read the 2nd one first, of course)A Small Death in the Great Glen. It is set in the ’50’s (Suez is the national news)and the author grew up there in the north but now she lives in Sydney, Australia, and she must have had to do a fair amount of your kind of research, Admin, because there are all sorts of details which sound right to me as far as general culture goes and quite possible as far as Highlands Scots culture goes, since I had strict Presbyterian great grandparents. Still there are all sorts of bits and bobs she wouldn’t dare to put in if she weren’t sure. It’s all about knowledge. Ripper St. last night assumed you knew about the Eastend of London and the Jewish connections there. The Fagin and his band of boys was quite horrifying, but the most horrifying bit of all was the whistle they used as signals – as soon as you heard it out in the dark you knew what was coming. A detail connected to what you’d seen and heard, but it’s all about ghastly appearance and effect, not about understanding what’s going on. I rather liked the free lance “police” even though those things never work well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were groups like that springing up after particularly unpleasant events, especially the ripper murders.

  2. admin says:

    A nice comment Helen – this is exactly what I’m talking about.

  3. Ken Murray says:

    Helen, I remember James Burke’s Connections quite fondly and sought out the DVD series at the library last year. Most of my working life has been in the field of research in some form or other (clinial or social mostly). And even though I have specific post-grad training in how to research, I feel it is a mostly an intuitive process. Basically I think you have to be of a certain mindset to recognise possible connections . However knowing the the theory greatly helps to disseminate those discoveries. I would liken it to art, in that you can teach someone the technical aspects of painting or drawing but it does not necessarily follow that they can create great art?

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Trying to teach the basic principles is not easy, either, especially now that we have mindless computers, which give you precisely what you asked for. Two girls who were doing beginning work on ancient Egypt came to me white to the lips wanting to know why they had got pictures of a barely dressed dancer. “What are you really asking?” is where you start and then widen or deepen from there. Burke’s Connections was a lineal connection, but I imagine if he’d sniffed around he could have gone out in any number of other directions. His series was goal oriented, of course.

  5. Ken Murray says:

    Helen – I agree, it’s amazing how many people have problems with search engines.We seem to have (as a society) got ourselves into a situation where answers are readily provided without having to work out what the question was. The answer is indeed 42 but without context it’s meaningless. Douglas Adams would be so proud…

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    I think this is one of the best posts you’ve made. :0)

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Well, done Helen.
    What exactly is the question to be asked, the hypothesis, is the key. And in branching logicically through the cloud of data out there the more specific the question asked (not “I’m Feeling Lucky”) the more appropriate should be the answer. Still, I myself find many initial search questions need to be refined as sometimes it often seems to be a case of “the dog in the night.”

  8. John Howard says:

    Starting at whistling; who can forget, from The Good Life, Tom Good’s little whistle which seemed to appear in every episode. Maybe an example of someone who worked outside a lot acquiring the habit. Although he was undoubtedly middle class, do you think that just the action of trying to survive on tilling the land yourself would lead to a downgrading to lower class and therefore an adoption of the habit of whistling??

    As for ‘sorry’ or ‘only if you’re making one’, could this be an example of the English desire to be seen as polite? Those responses being definitely from the middle to lower classes. Couldn’t see that coming from the upper classes as they have servants to do that sort of thing for them.

    I say English as I spent at least 17 years in Scotland in the 70’s and 80’s and ‘sorry’ didn’t seem to be too prevalent. Not that they weren’t polite. In fact their politeness seemed to be a more natural thing. As for having a cup of tea it was more a case of knowing that if you visited someones house then you definitely would be getting one, as well as either home made cakes or scones or at least a plateful of biscuits which you would be encouraged to consume. Lovely times.

    Along with Helen and Ken I fondly remember James Burkes Connections programme. I even have the book on the bookshelves somewhere with, of course, “The Ascent of Man’ close beside it.

  9. John Howard says:

    As for the search engine point, am I right in thinking that, whatever the query, the page that the search engine puts at the top of your list of answers, having taken you question into account, is the one that has been visited most?? (Ignoring, of course, the advertisers). So, whatever the question, you have to temper the results with a bit of common sense. I find that occasionally I have to look at the third or fourth listing to get the result that answers my question most accurately.

    Sorry if that seems a bit rambling but I know what I mean Guv.. 🙂

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    I for one would say: yes and no.
    Look up Lady Gaga (just a pop example, honestly) and you probably will be sent to the most visited. But web crawlers are so much better and faster now you may actually find what you want at the top. (This is pronouncement is subject to Snowy – which it’s doing here now – visiting.) And many times you do have to go down a bit.
    Still, in my experiece with (as a recent exp.)a query involving 18th century Leipzig’s four administrative divisions, I was sent to exactly the right sites, and in addition found an 18-20 page research paper on the location, establishment, operation and maintenance of Leipzig’s early 18th century “fire stations” (the earliest in Europe), including an official Fireman’s Operation’s Guide and Responsibilities. And metal whistles were used to communicate. Who knew that old J.S. Bach had one close outside his door. A big yawn for most, but it is an unexpected detail such as Admin referenced.

  11. snowy says:

    To whistle, there has to be a whistlable tune, I’m struggling to think of a recent song that lends itself to whistling.

    The tea thing is a negotiation, the offer means you are welcome to stay awhile, the answer allows a person to indicate acceptance and set conditions. It might be “Yes please” or “I’ve only got time for a quick one” or “No I’ve got to dash off to …….”.

    James Burke’s Connections is on a well known video streaming site for anyone who fancies a bit of a wallow.
    [Searching for JamesBurkeWeb will find it].

    Search engines are a problem, the domination of one starting with ‘G’ stifles development of alternatives and the increased amount of ‘kipple’ and ‘poisoning’ is making it harder to locate useful info.

    Back in the times of dial-up, a particular site would return a list of sites and on a second tab would give a list of related words you could tick box to include or exclude. Much to my chagrin it dissapeared, and then I had to construct long boolean strings to get the same effect, [grumble, grumble]. But I discovered a extension for Firefox that throws up a word cloud for results that does the same thing (called Search Cloudlet, click left side of word to include, right side to remove).

    There have been a number of alternative search things, Kartoo produced a spider diagram showing clusters of results, that you could click on and eliminate the parts that were not relevant. Sadly it shut down.

    DuckDuckGo doesn’t profile users so results are not skewed by prior search history. Carrot2 clusters results into a spin wheel that allows you pick sections, quite pretty but the indexing is poor.

    If the big 3 aren’t giving you the result you want, trying searching for a specialised search engine in the subject of interest. Sometimes it is better to have fewer connections. 😉

  12. andrea yang says:

    My Grandfather taught me to whistle and my Grandmother challenged every time I whistled with “Ladies do not whistle”. I doubt to many children hear that anymore!

  13. Helen Martin says:

    “Whistling girls and crowing hens
    are no use to God or men”
    I could never whistle properly and decided it was too much work.
    Those alternative methods of searching sound helpful, Snowy. It’s really annoying when you twist your question, change the vocabulary and *still* the search misunderstands your request. Elementary students now are probably much quicker with computers than they were 6 years ago when I retired, but I’ll bet they could really use instruction and practice in lateral thinking. I carefully learned lineal thought in order to keep to a logical sequence but now lateral is of more use. Except when writing.

  14. snowy says:

    I wrote all that and then failed to include perhaps the only bit of pertinent info {bangs head on table].

    There are some very good specialised search engines just for young students that want/need to research homework that are better than the big 3 because they only index info that is relevant to what students need to know. Sweetsearch and ipl2 just as examples.

    And of course I will mention the BBC History website, particularly for elementary students.

    Children get plenty of practise at lateral thought, adults sneak it into their heads by calling them puzzles, and they don’t even realise. 🙂

    For serious research, nothings beats a real libray, with real librarians that know their speciality.

  15. snowy says:

    Anyone finished their pulp Sci-Fi novel, but just lack a cover?


    Or just use it to make a custom Birthday Card, party invite, place setting, or stick it in a frame.

    [Not of my making, just a fun thing I found and to distract from my frankly shocking spelling].

  16. andrea yang says:

    Thanks to Helen’s post i found the following variants:

    “Whistling girls and crowing hens,
    Always come to some bad end;”

    and again–

    “A whistling wife and a crowing hen,
    Will come to God, but God knows when;”

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you Andrea, rhymes to insult people have long lives and take on many different shades.
    I bow deeply in your direction, Snowy, on behalf of all librarians, specialized, school and public. I should pass those engines on to school teachers of my acquaintance.

  18. glasgow1975 says:

    John Howard, you can’t have spent much time in the finer homes of Edinburgh where you’re more likely to be asked, “You’ll have had your tea?” than be offered it 🙂

  19. John Howard says:

    Hi glasgow. You are right, I spent the vast majority of my time on the west coast. My daughter still lives up there and it is always a fun time when we go and visit. I even have a soft spot for Glasgow itself, even though it may be “murrdurr”. I have been to many great concerts at the venerable Greens Playhouse, sadly no longer there. Anyone for tea Miss Cranston 🙂

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