On packing for a novel

Although I love trips away and I’ve chosen to be a writer, packing a case and planning a novel both fill me with dread. But I’m not one to waste a good analogy.

I don’t know what to include. I’m worried I may end up marooned without something crucial, or humping around a dead weight of miscellaneous junk. Will my choices complement each other, or will they be out of place and pointless? What mood will I be in – light, careless, stressed, excited, energetic?
hat-and-umbrellaWill I stride up mountains and pen epic passages? If so I’d better take my strongest boots and most heroic thoughts. Or will I get stuck at some bureaucratic roadblock, with no way through from one chapter to the next without endless examination of my narrator’s identity and reasons for passing through? Will my inner critic let me vault such hurdles, only to shrug her shoulders and say, I’m lost?

For realism and to set the scene, a writer can note the climate. But how will the weather behave? Will my characters and I need rain coats or diaphanous gowns? How will I fare when the pests of the air sting on the long itchy nights / typos adn infelicities infest my exiled prose? I can pack mosquito repellent but I can’t pack my editor.

Who and where are my secondary characters? Will they just happen along, or have I planned to meet them? It’s the author’s privilege to ditch the Brexit bores, if that’s who the company turns out to be, but they can be tenacious chaps who hang around dulling my polished prose. A good guide book may help me avoid them, so in it goes.

How quickly will time pass? Do I need books, sketching materials, puzzles – aka subplots, illustrations, and red herrings? Or will my trip and my story be entertaining enough alone? Would such distractions impede or embellish?

I dither and wander and find displacement activities. Make a trifle, sand the kitchen counter, catch up with the book reviews I promised months ago. Anything but commit to what is going in that case/novel. (Tracy Chevalier describes this well in the Guardian.) In the end I wildly throw everything, essential or not, on the bed. I hurl more on top, chuck it out, bung it in again.. It’s a depressing muddle that will never fit and I sleep in the spare room that night.

Anyway, what case? I forgot I’d thrown it out as it was splitting. Ditto what flight bag? What about those transparent moments when everyone can see my intimate creams and ointments as I go through security? Am I writing a novel at all, or is the idea just too leaky and revealing? Would it be wiser not even to embark ?

hand-baggage-1

Departure day arrives. I must commit. I have a list on the computer, some of it out of date (cassette tapes? Trainer cups?) Likewise there’s a list of requirements for a novel: genre, characters (all grown ups now), setting, inciting incidents, five acts, themes, and – when I can finally leave the house – resolution. Nothing must be left behind.

At the airport I’m anxious and buy more paracetamol, forgetting I already have enough to kill off a whole series of victims.

Let’s cut to the last day of the trip/the end of my current writing journey. I’m pleased! I vow to visit again, spending more time in one place, paying more careful attention. I’ve acquired so much I have to force the case shut and buy a strong strap to keep everything together. The paraphernalia I added early in my stay are still protected by tissue wrappings: I’ve forgotten what these items are and they’ll take me by surprise when I unpack back home. Most are no good: what I thought an ideal Christmas present is actually tacky; that poignant incident I wrote the night we drank cocktails is schmaltz. The volatile scene created on the flight out will work, with some of the turbulence tamed; but the meandering chapter of the thirty-two hour Friday you live through when you get on a plane at midday in Tokyo and disembark at 3pm in London is too long and tired.There’s dirty washing to be done and careless prose to clean up and the only thing that will help is a cup of tea that tastes of home. My analogy has been baggage handled to breaking point, but souvenirs survive: a fine wine, a garment of exquisite comfort to be worn until it falls apart, photographs of beautiful, strange people and places. Enough to frame the rest of the story. Welcome to the start of making sense.

case-closed-4

© Jessica Norrie 2016

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20 thoughts on “On packing for a novel

  1. Hi Jess. Lovely analogy. Hope you had a great time and look forward to hearing about your trip in detail shortly. I do sympathise about the packing though. I just throw everything into the case and hope!. There is no answer to that one

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful analogy, Jessica! I know it well. Thirteen years of cross-country train trips to visit the family for two months… Doing the final edit on my third book… Ah, the tea might morph into a nice glass of Cabernet 🙂

    Like

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