The Thread Of The Tapestry

Reading & Writing

In every magazine about writing the question comes up with dispiriting regularity; where do you get your ideas from? And every answer must be different. For me it’s not a spark, an image or a snippet of dialogue that sets me off on the trail of a new story. It’s a twist of thread with enough colour in it to be woven into something interesting.

This is literally true of a novel I’m working on in deep background called ‘The Foot on the Crown’, which probably won’t be ready for at least three more years. It began with me looking at an old, unloved tapestry that had become unthreaded in one corner, and two thoughts; that a tapestry depicts history as we would like to imagine and be remembered by  it, not how it really is, and that the best plans can become unravelled in their telling…

‘The Foot on the Crown’ is a fanciful version of the birth of London, but when I discussed it with a fellow author he was horrified that I wasn’t going to provide details of the various religious factions in conflict with each other during the period. I explained that if I started into that, I’d end up with a completely different book. The point was to unveil the colourful tapestry even though it was untruthful, and not stick to the more accurate, prosaic facts.

I feel the same way about crime thrillers. Recently I watched the BBC’s three-parter ‘The Salisbury Poisonings’, a true international incident with all the trappings of a John Le Carré thriller, mixed with the Slough House novels of Mick Herron. The real-life facts are startling; murders brazenly committed with an untraceable poison by Russian stooges who kill and harm British citizens. Putin’s spies are beyond inept (they went on TV to tell everyone how much they loved the cathedral), everything that can go wrong does so, and yet ugly assassinations are carried out in the genteel town of Salisbury.

In this case there are clear choices to be made in the storytelling; is it a grotesque black comedy highlighting Putin’s arrogance or a gritty real tragedy? The BBC opted to focus on ‘how ordinary people reacted to a crisis on their doorstep, displaying extraordinary heroism’. The result was like a Crimewatch episode. If you were remotely familiar with the facts there was nothing to do but watch the grim drama roll out very, very slowly, artlessly and drably because it reflects real life.

Such a verité approach worked for ‘Chernobyl’ because the story had far greater repercussions, the details were hitherto largely unknown and an unbearable tension drove the narrative. With ‘The Salisbury Poisonings’ writers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson micro-focussed on the ‘ordinary people’ involved, not the wider drama, giving the play a very ‘telly’ feel. This approach has a noble lineage; in his science fiction dramas Nigel Kneale was always careful to include the thoughts of the man and woman on the street, but that was never the only strand, merely a baseline.

Which is how I feel about my own writing; fanciful accuracy is an odd thing to aim for but I like life writ larger. The stories I’m told about London frequently shock me with their sheer absurdity, and I try to reflect that in my books. The business with the ladies protecting endangered bats in ‘The Lonely Hour’ was jotted down practically verbatim. Many similar conversations I have can’t be used because they seem too over-the-top. I could probably get a couple of books out of my neighbours’ Hindu-Jewish-Scottish-Hawaiian-Japanese wedding breakfast but there’s a genuine risk that readers wouldn’t buy it.

For years many people who hadn’t read my books assumed I was writing supernatural stories. But every story has its thread, to be located by the writer and turned into its own tapestry. It’s up to the writer to choose fact or fantasy, and where to pitch camp at any point in between.

30 comments on “The Thread Of The Tapestry”

  1. Fascinating post.

    Tom Wolfe thought writers had a duty to capture the reality of their times which was certainly valuable before the invention of photography and documentary film. Dickens and Zola et al are vital for understanding Victorian times.

    Some painters moved on to more imaginative artworks after 1870 or so as photographs replaced accurate paintings of people and places. Some writers followed after documentary films recorded straightforward realism far better.

    I prefer books and films with ‘a touch of strange’ (Theodore Sturgeon) and creative imagination. Straight realism can’t compete with intelligent documentary film and interviews with real people but fantasies do work better and are more persuasive if rooted in a convincing everyday reality.

    Harlan Ellison was so fed up with being asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from ?’ that he always answered
    ‘Shenectady’ !
    and documentary film

  2. Jo W says:

    The catering for that wedding breakfast must have been a nightmare to cater. Did they,maybe, ask guests to bring their own packed lunch?

  3. Andrew Holme says:

    Russell T. Davies when asked where his ideas came from replied, ” the ideas shop, you just go in and buy them.”

  4. Dawn Andrews says:

    Like the tapestry imagery. Sounds like a thread well worth following, with fiendish imaginative tenacity. Unlike the goings on of present day assassins, what, no poisoned brolly spikes? At least that was a bit inventive.

  5. SteveB says:

    That quote from RTD reminds me of the ‘department store of hearts’ desires’ in Nostrilia

    I think what I look for in fiction is for it, in some fashion, to be ‘larger than life’. It’s one reason many traditional novels however artful don’t appeal to me so much.

  6. SteveB says:

    Norstrilia sorry!! Nostrilia is somewhere else…

  7. Wild Edric says:

    I’m not convinced by that title sorry. Foot on the Crown just makes me picture the massive Monty Python animated foot squashing down (with the accompanying raspberry sound). And an uncovered foot on a spiky crown? Wouldn’t it be better as The Boot on the Crown? Sorry – just thinking aloud.

    The question where do you get your ideas from seems so lazy. Maybe the questioner has never sat on a train, overheard a conversation and imagined a whole back-story? Or discovered an interesting snippet of history and wonder how the people involved came to that point?

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Steve B – Isn’t ‘Norstrilia’ featured in the sci-fi books of ‘Cordwainer Smith’? It rattled a memory in the ‘Barry Island’ (where old, half remembered ideas go to rust up a treat, and die) bit of my memory.

  9. Liz Thompson says:

    Alan Bennett reckoned he got a lot of ideas from overhearing people on the bus.

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    I have to give Alan Bennett enormous praise for his ability to feel under the skin of people and give an amazingly authentic voice to the simple and unavoidable horrors that eventually face all of us; he has a real ear for the way language defines us, and how we avoid using it with the people we are (or should be) close to.

    The current ‘Talking Heads’ series should be compulsory viewing to 6th formers. And probably the Tory Party.

    The question should never be ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ but ‘How do you choose the ideas you wan’t to follow’

    Ideas usually come looking for you if you have an acquisitive / inquisitive mind.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Peter, I think you’re right. I don’t write and I am forever chucking overheard storries – or I was before I became totally alone in here. I have just finished Christopher Moore’s book “Noir” which ends with a chapter on the sources he used. These include: a Google search, O Henry’s story “The Ransom of Red Chief”, a series of buildings and characters from San Francisco of the 1940s, and appearance of a UFO (allegedly) in Roswell, New Mexico. I giggled every time there was a reference to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. You could feed that same list of ideas to a half dozen authors and end up with a half dozen totally different novels and a non-fiction history of the period as well. It isn’t so much the ideas as what you do with them. (Now I have to look up black mamba snakes.)

  12. Jan says:

    Will write Chris.
    Wild Edric has got a point about that title.( It’s naff. )

    GOG and MAGOG may have some sort of contribution to make

    Not long in am knackered hope all ok with you. Jan x

  13. Brooke says:

    Agree with Dawn–tapestry is great imagery for writing, i.e. choosing what to write and how to structure the story. The colored thread or weft has to be bound to something, the warp or foundation which holds the tension (pattern) in the fabric. As a reader I resent threads, no matter how bright and shiny, that are just hanging loose, with no warp holding everything together. Makes reading a hard slog–usually to nowhere.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Another item from Noir: what happened to all those hundreds – thousands – of women who became competent arc welders? I found a welders’ site which was mostly about equipment – on sale! – and supplies but there was a blog with a recent entry about women welders in WWII There were photos and a few stories, including the remark that at least one of the women kept her hand in by doing her household repairs herself. My question is how many of them were there who did that and how many women hid that extremely great skill ever after? There were competitions and the woman who won in 1944 won $350 in war bonds and an invitation to meet Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. This is all US of course.
    I just heard that the first woman computer at NASA has had a building named for her – and she was black, too.
    CNN has been reporting breathlessly all day that it looks as if the EU will block Americans from visiting. They don’t seem to have noticed that our border has been closed for months andd we won’t open it until case numbers are a lot lower than they are now. Oh, well, we’re just Canadian and no one cares who we keep out. (10 new cases in B.C. today and 1 death)

  15. admin says:

    Joe Orton was the master of the overheard remark, too. His diaries are filled with them. I must watch the film version again, which provides the link between Orton and Bennett.

  16. snowy says:

    The women that were hastily drafted into industry, were for the most part only ever ‘single task trained’. They were bio-robots in a mass-production system, doing exactly the same thing over and over again.

    If they learned anymore than just one single task, it was a matter of luck. When peace came what they were making was no longer in demand and their job disappeared. [Without a rounded education in the industry eg. an 3-4 year apprenticeship they couldn’t compete in the Post-war job market].

    If memory serves most competitions were for volume, not skill and were entirely cooked up for morale/recruitment.

    Those women that did weld, might have carried on using their skills if they either married a farmer with lots of machinery that needed fixing or became artists of the ” jaggy lumps of metal slapped together and plonked in public spaces” school.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    Hattie Jacques (of “Carry On” fame-ooh…matron!)was a welder in the war. In the 1950 film “Chance of a Lifetime” her character was a welder, and she had no difficulty making it look absolutely real. Everyone working on the picture was duly impressed.

    I also think the Queen learned how to do it in the war, but I may be wrong.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – that brilliant, brilliant woman was Katherine Johnson, who died in February this year. She was so precise in her calculations, Buzz Aldrin trusted her work more than that of all NASA’s computers. BBC Radio 4 broadcasts an obituary programme on Sundays, called ‘Last Word’. It’s always fascinating, and I heard of the death of Katherine Johnson on that. The show might be on the BBC World Service, but I’m not 100% sure. If it is, it’s worth a listen, and it’s not morbid or gloomy at all.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    My dad knew Hattie Jacques slightly – she had a house in the small Essex town where dad’s mum and dad lived. Dad said that, far from being the terrifying ‘battleaxe’ she often portrayed on screen, she was utterly charming.

  20. SteveB says:

    @Ian Norstrilia – Yes it’s North Australia in the future

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, it is a constant pain to me that I can never remember people’s names no matter how I concentrate. As a teacher it was a serious problem and I refuse to accept that it is down to complete ego-centrism on my part. Unless it is.

    Snowy, the welding article I read said that the competitions were based on “speed, workmanship and quality.” Welding itself could be described as a “single task skill” and wouldn’t require a full apprenticeship but remember that the apprenticeship system – for good or ill – has never been strong in North America. Bio-robots, indeed! Apparently women are increasingly entering that industry. I don’t want to question actual history (there has always been too much of that) but I think there are more factors in play than just the loss of a job. One of which would be the self respect of returning soldiers who often found it difficult to find a job – hence the veteran’s preference.

  22. snowy says:

    I don’t know if they used a picture on the blog you read, 6/4 on it was ‘Wendy the Welder’, a colour picture of a young woman holding a lit torch. [Well here’s the thing it’s not welding torch it’s a gas cutter and she is called Flo ‘Woo Woo’ Joyce].

    I’m not up on the Can/US experience, but in Britain Women were not liable to be conscripted until 1941. And from there they could be ‘directed’ to work in industry, they were just sent to any old factory that was short of people, no choice of job.

    If they wanted to avoid this they could volunteer for military service, the preferences seem to have been WAAF, nicest uniforms it was thought, WRNS, second best or ATC, horrible brown uniforms. Some would end up very disappointed, stuck in the Land Army or Timber Corps depending on where need was highest, [and that uniform was about as sexy as a sack of pig manure with a rope tied round it]. [I’ll find a link for this and post it separately].

    Once in a factory they would be shown how to perform one single task just as a series of repetitive actions, if they were turning shells on a turret lathe, it would be reduced to a sequence of levers to pull and handles to wind. The machines were set up to follow a pattern all they had to do was pull, push and crank hand-wheels. They were just bio-robots, it’s all done with computers these days, [lots of videos of CNC lathes about].

    Come the end of hostilities, most were sick and tired of standing 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week, doing exactly the same job they had been doing for the last 4 years, getting covered in oily grime they didn’t have enough soap to wash off. Most couldn’t wait to get away from it.

    With the peace, manufacturing had to be reconfigured to make many different new things in smaller quantities, mass production that could use mostly low-skilled people disappeared. The factory owners would have kept them on, if they had work in volume. But the Labour Unions were opposed – women lowered wages, skilled men were returning in thousands and once de-mobilised from military service, [and without military pay], they all needed jobs to feed their families.

    [After thought].

    Women going into welding? Have they re-released ‘Flashdance’ again? Why anybody irrespective of contents of pants wants to go anywhere near welding is beyond me. It’s awful, like trying to write icing on a cake while it is still in the oven, wearing oven mitts and very dark sunglasses while some body else intermittently trickles red hot sand down your neck.

    I will admit cutting through 2″ thick steel sheet is rather fun, shame we never had a go on a thermal-lance, [I think they were rather wedded to not having extra holes in the walls, staff, students etc.].

  23. Helen Martin says:

    If a person was doing what you describe, Snowy, then bio-robot is the correct term and I apologize but in Canada it seems to have been different. There was no conscription of women and the heavy duty stuff was done in the industrial east – Ontario and Quebec. I haven’t done research but we had a tv series (I know, I know) called Bomb Girls about the women in the munitions factories and that appeared to be all by hand, not machine, but then I don’t know reality, do I. The article I was reading didn’t have “Woo-Woo”‘s photo (called that because of the catcalls she got) and Wendy was just the equivalent of Rosie, as in Rosie the Riveter, so Wendy the Welder. I think you ruffled me because it sounded as if you were belittling the work those girls (and the 1944 winner was only 19) were doing. And I wasn’t having it. If I had been doing the kind of repetitive work you describe I’d have been glad to get out, too, but there’s more to it, I think. and the welders were building ships, not standing at a work station.

  24. snowy says:

    My fault, clumsy phrasing on my part, ‘were used as bio-robots’ would have been better.

    No slight was intended against 1000s of women that were ‘kidnapped’ from their planned lives and thrust into really horrible jobs against their will.

    Welding a ship together would have been long, dirty and tiring job, months on end of standing/kneeling on open scaffolding in all weathers, laying down a bead of weld, chipping out, wire brushing, laying down another bead, over and over and over.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    Snowy – although use of a thermic lance would probably be frowned upon, you can still have some (dangerous) fun with Thermite. Several youtube channels show it, but the best info on it can be gained from a channel called ‘Cody’s Lab’ – Imagine ‘Brains’ from Thunderbirds made flesh, and that’s Cody. Horticulture, Beekeeping, Astronomy, Chemistry, Metallurgy, Mining, even cookery – he knows something about it. The other channel, is the slightly more kid-friendly ‘King Of Random’ channel. Sadly, it’s creator, Grant Thompson, died in a paragliding accident about a year ago, but the channel lives on, and they do still find weird stuff to do with thermite.

  26. Helen Martin says:

    Did not know thermite but the husband does. Pour it into an enclosure over a replacement piece of rail, light a railway flare and dip it into the enclosure then stand back as the flame soars (particularly dramatic at night). When everything cools down remove enclosure and grind down the join. Traffic on adjoining rail lines prohibited once the flare is lighted “just in case”. I thought the stuff was just an explosive and I cannot imagine playing around with it. That description was more than enough for me.

  27. John Griffin says:

    To what extent in a drama doc do you play around with time lines and omit problematic facts? Salisbury Poisoning did all that and more.

  28. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – Thermite is one of those really dangerous things that inventive minds can find fun things to do with. When I was at school we made some in a Chemistry lesson. The teacher lit it, though, using, of all things, a sparkler. A BBC TV show, many years ago, called ‘Rough Science’ made some with rust and aluminium pop cans. However, you do need to know the correct proportions to make it work.

  29. Helen Martin says:

    If you hear of wild explosions on the N. American west coast you’ll know that Myth Busters has a new incarnation. We never did anything as interesting as that in science class.

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