What’s Your Style?

Reading & Writing

Can you tell if a writer has a particular style? I didn’t think I had one until my agent pointed it out. I’d always assumed that most writers don’t have just one style but an infinite number ready for use. Good writers can pastiche and mimic. Great ones perform miracles of assimilation that make you believe they inhabit the world in which they write. And a surprising number have no style at all.

If on your school report it said; ‘She/he enjoys being the class clown’ you’ve a head start over the others. Mimicry comes naturally to children. We ape TV ads, jingles, songs and comedy routines, memorising and repeating them until we drive our parents mad – at least we used to; research suggests that a new generation is being silenced by iPads. But this kind of fear has always been present – when the northern half of the country adopted Greenwich Meantime there were outraged letters complaining that we were no longer following nature’s diurnal plan but being bewitched by new technology.

As mimics eager for input, we didn’t just master the words, we copied vocal stylings. My brother and I could perform the whole of ‘A Sunday Afternoon At Home’, a radio episode of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ Voices informed style and in novels dialogue suggested character.

I mimicked actors so well that I was often drafted in to write for them; it helps if you write words that an actor can make natural-sounding. Books were a different matter; it’s not easy taking on a much-loved author’s style, but Sebastian Faulks, whom I admire, managed a pitch-perfect James Bond novel that was somehow rather colourless (probably because he had a tricky brief to fulfil) and more recently a PG Wodehouse novel. He got the latter style absolutely right, but I couldn’t read on past the first line of the Wodehouse. Here it is;

I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of steps.

Bertie Wooster is actually being awoken by his alarm clock at the right time, so the line is funny, but there’s that word;


It shouldn’t be there. In Bertie’s era all dustbins were metal, so Bertie would not have thought this. Faulks’s fear was that modern readers would not understand why dustbins would sound like alarm clock bells, because they’d be thinking of plastic ones. This is the same problem recently encountered in school examinations where they have had to replace traditional clocks with digital readouts because pupils can’t tell analogue time.

I felt that if Faulks was being forced into explanatory mode it would ruin the book for me. If we’re being accurate we can’t make allowances for changing times. The past really is another country, and most recreations get it a bit wrong (or on TV, completely wrong). We are all encumbered with historical hindsight.

Among the great writers who seemingly transform their style to the suiting of their subject, I can think of none greater than Hilary Mantel, whose ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy has passed far beyond mimickry into a period mindset. Peter Ackroyd did it in ‘Chatterton’ and ‘Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem’, Lissa Evans, Alexander Baron and Kate Atkinson have done it for different 20th century eras.

It’s not about simply piling on historical research – it requires a change of brain. And of course it gets harder the further back you go. But styles must be chosen. When I sit down to start a new book – as I’m doing today  – I have to decide which style to adopt. The most extreme style I ever attempted was for a short story called ‘Unnatural Selection’, which appeared in the collection ‘Old Devil Moon’. It began;

Me and Shezree wuz bord, wot wiv the rane fallin all week, an now it wuz the weekend, so there wuz no wok, an wen the sun cum art I sed lez go to vat nu park, iz sposd to be buetful wot wiv orl the plantz an flowrz an vat, and she sed souns lik a chanj wy not? We can afford it now cuz we robed a bloke with lotza munni in his wollit and stabed him an that. So we wen to the park at the uver end of the tarn.

Now, this is great fun  to write but hard work to read. Anthony Burgess and Irvine Welsh are both culprits, but once you get in the rhythm you theoretically forget the style. When you look through a novel you’ve liked, it’s interesting to go back over it looking for stylistic clues. You’ll be surprised how many subtle varieties there are. Descriptions of nature soften action, and colours and smells bring scenes to life. When I wrote ‘The Sand Men’ I filled it with heat images – I wanted the reader to feel warm.


18 comments on “What’s Your Style?”

  1. Brooke says:

    So tired of “style.” Too much thought; too little feel. It’s not a change of brain but a change of heart, of sympathy/empathy, that enables a writer to capture the zeitgeist.

    Interesting about rhythm–Burgess was a composer and after reading his work on music, I reread A Clockwork Orange and liked it much better.

    “…We can afford it…” strikes a false note.

  2. Jan says:

    Never ever accuse moi of being obsessed by minutiae like ever again.
    Interesting style diversions there for you Mr F.

  3. admin says:

    I have to be obsessed with minutiae Jan – it’s my job!

  4. Helen Martin says:

    When you have to translate “dustbins” the “metal” isn’t going to bother you. It’s not just period details that can jar; if you garden finding the smell of lilac in an August scene is just as jarring as planes overhead in 1910. If you meet two anachronisms near the beginning of a book you’ll find yourself losing the narrative while you watch out for more.

  5. snowy says:

    The dustbin conundrum.

    Faulks has a very good stab at a Wodehousian phrase but it is not quite the full ticket, it lacks, the customary flourish.

    If we let pass “rubbish bins” not being called rubbish bins, they were ash cans*.

    I thought the blame could be placed upon the heavy hand of an Editor trying to broaden a books appeal or comprehension.

    Examples abound, to pluck one at [almost] random, there is a book called “Hellion” [written by some bloke whose name escapes me just at the moment] and on the first page the character of a teenage protagonist is given the phrase:

    “I pulled my nylon backpack from under the bed and tiptoed to the door.”

    There are numerous problems

    a) the completely irrational assertion, never witnessed in the real world that teenagers can tip-toe: clump, galumph, lumber or thud perhaps. Great clumsy oafs with feet like clown shoes.

    b) “nylon backpack”, well it’s a bit over-specific, no teenager known to me would use such a construction; (too many sylables to fit into a single grunt), the most you would get out of one is “bag”.

    * This started as a short note about ash cans, but got a bit big and may be skipped!

    There is a foolish tendancy to dismiss the practices of past generations as unsophisticated and with nothing to teach us today. Not so, ‘Household Managment’ had been honed to the status of a science, only to all be undone by the throw away plastic age of the 1960s. We are constantly be exhorted to cut waste and recycle, If you were able to peek into a inter-war ash can, you would find coal ashes and not much else. Food was bought in the quantity needed for immediate use, left-overs turned into new meals, bones boiled for stock and if there was a shortage of local dogs, given to the ‘Rag and Bone Man’, [along with any metal or glass that happen to come into the house]. Waxpaper wrappings went as firelighters. If a daily newspaper was taken it was converted into sheets of ‘stationery’ for the ‘smallest office’, usually hung on a nail on the back of the door. Don’t start me on the so called “Bag for Life”, my Gran had a wicker basket. It outlasted her, we could have burned her** in it if it had been a bit bigger***.

    ** At the Crematorium, not on a remote island.

    *** It was touch and go, she was a small lady, we could have disarticulated her at every joint and carefully packed all the odd bits around the torso, but we were stuck for a way to wedge the head under the handle. [If it got loose and started rolling about in the back of the glass sided hearse, it might be a bit much.]

  6. Jo W says:

    Hi Snowy,
    Your description of maybe using your Gran’s wicker basket as her casket caught my funny bone this morning and made me choke on my early morning cup of builders! One question though, was it a basket on wheels? If so,perhaps you wouldn’t have needed the hearse. 😉

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    I very much enjoyed ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells’, though I was disturbed by the adjective ‘metal’ before dustbins. Not because of any necessity to distinguish the material from plastic, just the word seemed wrong. ‘Galvanized steel’ would seem a bit technical for Bertie. ‘Hollow-ware,’ what a lovely word – its origin must be West Midlands, even more technical and nowadays includes ceramics and anything hollow. Our Bertram would have said steel or, mistakenly, iron to emphasise the metallic clang of his alarm.

    Certainly, in my youth, hollow-ware dustbins served two purposes: waste and making great clanging noises. We never called them ash cans; that must be a US term. They were also something of a social service. The dustman (or even dustbin man) came around the back of your house and humped the bin on his back to the dustcart. If anything was wrong, a little old lady failed to greet him, he was often the first to raise an alarm.

  8. Denise Treadwell says:

    Unfortunately, plastic bins don’t have quite the same notes!

  9. snowy says:

    Spurred on by Peter I had a bit of a deeper dig. [Though I like the term Hollow-ware, a phrase I had never before encountered, it might be my new favourite word.]

    I knew that Ash can or Ash bin were two very old British words coined in the wake of the 1875 Public Health Act, now hugely archaic. [Replaced by ‘rubbish bin’ in the 1920s according to Collins.]

    To build the picture we need to go right back, before domestic gas arrived every heating and cooking requirement was powered by coal. Every house in every street would be burning sack fulls of coal each week in the range in order to eat, make tea, heat gallons of water to wash clothes or fill the tin bath. Plus the extra used in fireplaces to heat rooms. Millions of houses producing huge mountains of ash as a result. It couldn’t be left piled up in the yards, it would be blown about by the wind or washed into watercourses. It was regarded as a public health nuisance and had to be dealt with. Hence the obligation on local authorities to provide a suitable receptacle for domestic ashes. And so was born the Ash can.

    The first [interesting] reference I could find lead to a lively dispute carried on in 1897 through the pages of the British Medical Journal regarding Dr Quines’s Sanitary Ashbin.

    Dr R H Quine of Manchester claimed to have invented a sanitary ash bin, the rights to which he sold to The Pendelton Sanitary Engineering Company, Manchester.

    Dr H E Armstong of Newcastle upon Tyne very strongly disputed his claim stating that he had exhibited a similar contrivance some seven years previous, itself the work of a Mr Arveschoug, resident of Newcastle [and well known spelling mistake]. Sadly I was unable to find how the matter was eventually settled.

    But whoever won, they were popular. The innovation was they were double sided, fastened into the back walls of the yard at the rear of a terraced house. The occupiers filled it from the one side, within the yard, then once weekly a council worker would pass down the ginnel, unlocking each bin from the outside with a special key, it would then hinge down into the ginnel and discharge the contents directly into his cart.

    [If you have ever seen one, you will know immediately what it is. If you have never seen one look out for strange metal doors half was up yard walls. They were still in use in Liverpool the 1960s in Wavertree area according to one source.]

  10. snowy says:

    Jo, any description I attempted to make would never do the lady justice, but she would have regarded buying oddly shaped bits of furniture for her shell to rattle about in just to burn it an extravagant waste of both time and money.

    [But funerals are not staged for the benefit of the dead.]

  11. snowy says:

    I know, I know too many comments! But I wanted to go back on topic, [just for a change.] and have another stab at the Wodehouse. It’s very difficult, the very least worst I could come up with was:

    “I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a Salvation Army Band falling through a balcony.”

  12. Martin Tolley says:

    Thanks Snowy, you leave me educated and amused in equal measure.
    Mr F. If you ever think of abandoning the blog again, or questionning its value….just come back to this thread and you’ll see why this is such a good place.

  13. Peter Tromans says:

    It’s remarkable that in the Victorian era we had the two most basic forms of waste, ash and the almost unmentionable ‘nightsoil,’ that were collected in suitable containers by the local authority. Everything else, as Snowy has explained, was recyled. After one and a half centuries, thanks to sewers and gas mains, we’ve just about eliminated ash and nightsoil and replaced them with a whole mass of stuff. If only we had some Victorians to tell us what to do with it.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    That, Peter, sums up the matter beautifully.
    On a slightly connected note: Collins does not have “ginnel”, a word I have met a couple of times and had to guess at the meaning (of). It also says that “ash can” is a U.S. word for dustbin. I have a strong feeling that it is a regionalism, or was before television leveled our vocabularies. In our neck of the woods they were garbage cans. If you had delusions of grandeur a la Mrs. Bucket then they could be trash cans. Nowadays they are wheelie bins – or is it wheely bins? and every home has a fleet of them in different colours and shapes for varying specific materials.
    (I still take a plastic mug with me to avoid having to use disposable cups. Are we now to take personal cutlery and straws as well in our “re-usable” bag?

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – a ‘Ginnel’ is a narrow alleyway. Sometimes separating two lots of back to back houses, but also found in cities, often delineating boundary lines.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, that’s more or less what I figured but I was disappointed to be let down by Collins, my favourite dictionary. I wonder if it is an example of the “deep English” we’ve experienced here and therefor ignored by that north of the border publication.

  17. Peter Tromans says:

    Channel in Eastender?

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Peter, as well as the ‘Nightsoil’ men, earlier in London history, it was made compulsory for agents of the crown to enter houses, and remove containers of urine, which was collected for the phosphates to make gunpowder. People were encouraged to fill communal containers with urine, which was collected. How lovely on a hot summer day. Worse than that, possibly, were the ‘Pure finders’. Pure, you say? What is that? It sounds lovely. Well, it isn’t. It’s Dogshit. Pure men walked the streets, collecting the barker’s eggs, putting them in their bags. Occasionally they would use a glove, but apparently, you needed the ‘feel’ to collect every last bit. The canine excrement was used as part of the leather tanning process. Most human excrement was collected in cesspits, and these were sometimes not emptied, as Samuel Pepys found out when he went into his cellar, and found it full of, as he said “Enormous turds”, as his neighbour’s cesspit had overflowed. Nightsoil collection was dangerous as sixteenth century Nightsoil man Richard the Raker found out to his cost, when he ‘Drowned monstrously in his own excrement’.

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