Archive | June 2012

Different perspective, different voice

Conventional wisdom used to dictate that popular novelists should write in the third person. It’s a convention that has been broken successfully many times; nonetheless there ARE difficulties for the writer in telling a story from a first person perspective, particularly when more than one perspective is involved.

The main problem is one of character development.  Third persons can be described for the reader either by the author or through the eyes of a first person narrator.  Thus we can know the color of their eyes and hair, other physical characteristics, and their personality traits.  We can also know where they live and what they do.  However, it requires more skill to give the reader a sense of the narrator’s character and appearance because description must be done more subtly.  When several narrators are involved, each “voice” has to clearly convey a sense of itself or the reader will become confused.

My own method of dealing with this is to use distinctive linguistical gimmicks to identify each of my characters, as well as the conventional tactic of employing different typefaces in the text.

In my book “A Garden in Africa” the first-person narrator has been kept deliberately in the background.  Very little is ever revealed about this person beyond some basic biographical details;  this is so that the character of the narrator never attracts attention from the book’s heroine.  Another “voice” is employed occasionally throughout the book; that of an acerbic aunt who brings a different perspective to people and events.  This is important so that the narrator – and by extension the reader – can gain a deeper insight to the characters and their motivations.  I used a different typeface to express the aunt’s “voice” so the reader could immediately understand that the perspective had shifted.  To distinguish the voice of the aunt from that of the narrator I gave her the typical linguistic expressions, including slang, of her earlier time.   

Other perspectives were introduced here and there throughout the book, expressed as quotes drawn from the narrator’s memory or from letters.  Again, I was careful to distinguish these by the language used – especially slang which is always an effective  way of signifying a particular era and social type.  

I always feel more comfortable writing in the first person and this is probably because most of my work has been gardening books where one is communicating information directly to the reader. I’m also aware of the pitfalls involved, especially the difficulty of making the narrator interesting to the reader.  Unless, of course, the narrator is NOT the central character in the book.  Jane Eyre has to capture the reader’s interest.  Nelly Dean does not. So when telling my tale from differing perspectives I’ve had to evolve ways of doing this to help keep my readers in the loop.

I hope this post will help other writers who are faced with the same challenge.


Animal voices


If this little wallaby could talk, what would he sound like?

One of the charms of the book Watership Down, published all those years ago and still much-loved, is that the rabbits sounded like rabbits.  Or so we thought.  Of course, we don’t really know what rabbits sound like when they communicate with each other – if indeed they use any sound at all.  However, one can’t write a novel about a society of rabbits without endowing them with the abilility to converse.  So what author Richard Adams did was to create a language with just enough words in it to scatter through the basic English spoken by his various rabbit characters.

Now consider another much-loved book about animals in the English countryside – The Wind in the Willows.  Kenneth Graham’s creatures spoke just like humans; the “nice” animals such as Rat and Mole spoke plain English, Toad spoke with the sort of upper class twittishness made popular by P.G. Wodehouse and the Wild Wooders spoke like lower class yobs.  In anthropomorphic works by other authors – for example Br’er Rabbit – the animals speak in the vernacular of their place and period.

When we write from the perspective of a non-human creature, we too often take a condescending tone or make the animal sound too cutesy.  I still shudder when I remember a weekly newspaper column written from the perspective of a dachsund dog which featured typically twee comments such as: “I took my master for his usual walk and we stopped at his favorite tree…”.  Even when writing for children there is no need to insult their intelligence with this sort of twaddle!

To my mind the best “animal” authors are those creative enough to invent a language that immediately, in the reader’s mind, distinguishes their creatures from human beings.  In order for them to be interesting to us it is, of course, necessary to endow the fictional animals with human traits and to express these mostly in human language – but if this is enlivened by a few invented words that somehow express “rabbitnesss” or “horseness” then it will all seem that much more believable. A fine example of this can be found in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book where Kaa the Python speaks with a wonderfully sly and slithery voice.

So if we are writing a blog – or a novel for that matter – in which the narrator takes a different perspective, such as that of a dog or a hamster, then I think we need to use our imaginations and give our talking (or writing!) pet some distinctive words and expressions.

All this has got me thinking about using language to distinguish more than one perspective when writing about humans – see my next post!

White mischief

In my previous post I said that some readers of my book A Garden in Africa asked two questions – the first I have already answered and the second one is this – why is my book only (or at least mostly) about the experience of white people in Africa?

The answer is linked with my previous post in which I wrote of the legitimacy of writers drawing on their own lives to create literature.

In my foreword to A Garden in Africa I made it very clear that my sources were the experiences of white people in colonial-era Kenya.  And that it would have been presumptuous of me to try and create a work of fiction based on the experience of black Africans.  I grew up with black Kenyans, especially those of the Kamba tribe.  I spoke their language, shared their childhood games, learned their folklore and customs.  But I would not presume to say I “know” those people because the socio-cultural gap between us was very wide.  I could not possibly tell their story with any veracity or integrity.  Such a story could only be told by a black Kenyan – and it would be a very different story to mine.

I set out to tell the story of a young white woman who overcame tragedy and adversity and showed amazing courage in living a remarkable life in a remarkable country.  The way in which she farmed her land, embraced the mission of raising the living standards of those tribespeople who came under her aegis and gave freely of all that was best in western civilisation shows colonialism in a favourable light – and I make no apologies for that.  The history of the world is the history of one culture colonising another and if this hadn’t happened we’d all still be wearing woad or waving spears!  In my book, the garden that Flora created – a real garden, a true garden – stands as a metaphor for the colonial experience in Kenya; it was created from blood and sweat and tears, it flourished for a brief and glorious while, and it finally succumbed to change.

I wrote about what I knew, just as I always do.  If I had written about black people it would not have had the same truth.  DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin were once lauded for the way in which Porgy and Bess represented the life of Charleston’s Gullah community with such authenticity.  But did they?  Only a black South Carolinan can really say.  Duke Ellington didn’t think so but instead spoke scathingly of Gershwin’s “lampblack negroisms”.  Even today I suggest it would be hard for a white person to put themselves inside the skin of a black person, or a Chinese, or an Indian. And vice versa.  Not impossible – think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day  which showed such a subtle understanding of the English class sytem.  But it takes a really fine writer to achieve such an “under the skin” ability to transcend the racial, social and cultural divide.

That is, of course,  if you want to write from the inside.  If you are content to stand back and observe what you can from the outside then that’s fine…except that many readers will not realise that they are standing there on the outside along with you.  THIS is the difference between mere “writing” and great literature.  Not, I hasten to say, that I think for one minute that I am a writer of great literature – I write great gardening books!  But when I DO venture into fiction I try as much as possible to stick to what I know and research thoroughly what I don’t.

The disadvantage for young writers is that their life experience is both short and small.  But writing about what you know is not limited to writing about one’s self.  There are rich veins of literary gold to be mined in the lives of our relatives and friends and it is here we should be digging and delving if we want to write good books.

Out of Africa

Those who have read my book A Garden in Africa always ask me one question – and a few have asked me a second, and more difficult, question.

Question one is this: is the book fiction or non-fiction?  And my answer is always the same: “Guess!”

In truth (MY truth at least!) the book is largely non-fiction disguised as fiction for family reasons.  Or, as I like to say, to protect the guilty!  It’s no secret (certainly among those white people who live or have lived in Kenya) that the story is about my grandmother.  But just how much of that story has been fictionalised is my secret (just another secret to add to those in the book!) and I ain’t telling.

It does, I feel, raise the old question of just how much do authors of serious fiction (as opposed to sci fi and bodice rippers) draw on their own lives to tell their stories.  It’s been said many times that every person has one book inside them – their own life – and it’s been said equally many times that most of those books should remain just there!  Inside! As indeed most of them do.  Writing, as we writers know all to well, involves a lot more than just sharing our own lives with the reading world.

Yet I do cheerfully confess that in A Garden In Africa I did draw on my own life.  Most of my other books have been about gardening – it’s what I do for a living.  And, sure, I drew on my horticultural experience too when writing A Garden in Africa because, as the title says, it does feature a remarkable garden and to re-create it for the reader I had to use not just my memory but my professional knowledge.  That was the easy part.  The hard part is to find within oneself the language in which to tell the story.

As we all know, writing about our own past is very cathartic.  This is particularly true I think of those who have been “exiled” from the place of their birth and upbringing, as I have.  If we are born communicators then there is a passionate need in us to articulate our childhood and share it.  Just THINK how many great works of literature owe their genesis to that!

When I first started to write, my mother quoted that old adage: write what you know.  It irritated me a lot at the time because not only was it a cliche but I was young and desperately wanted to write on great themes that soared far beyond my own life expderience.  Yet there is a substrata of wisdom to it.  And so, when giving advice to novice writers today, I always tell them to use their own experiences as a firm base for their work if they plan to write serious fiction.  If you look at some of the greatest writers of the last century – Patrick White for example, or Hemingway – you will see how much they adhered to that convention.  And at the very least, the telling of your own story – or some small aspect of it – will give you a great deal of  emotional satisfaction!

I found writing A Garden in Africa a delight because I could go back in time and place to some thing very precious to me that I had lost. And felt disempowered and disgruntled by that loss.   As my heroine, Flora, lost so much that had seemed safe and sure and vitally valuable.  Of course, as we grow older, we are all losers!  We have lost what once was (look for a further post on what I call “the red lamp feeling” – the ultimate nostalgia mystery).  Only in memory – and in writing about it – can we find it.

So, young writers, tell what you know to be true.  Even if your truth is disguised.  Anything else is fantasy.

(As for that second question – read my next Blog posting!)

My quoll

I don’t mean to be repetitive but I tried publishing my quoll post on “quick post” and the photo didn’t come through.  So have tried again.  This is a picture of the spotted-tail quoll, one of Australia’s nocturnal animals that is not often seen by human eyes.  A cute little fellow but the males can be quite savage with one another in the breeding season.  Quolls are threatened by habitat destruction and increasing urbanisation so every sighting is a thrill.  I saw this little chap in broad daylight while birdwatching near a deep gorge in the tableland country of northern New South Wales.


People liked my baby bandicoot photo so much I thought I’d show everyone a much more elusive Aussie animal – a creature of the night which is rarely seen by human eyes. I saw it in broad daylight while birdwatching in the Northern New South Wales bush.

Getting your soil right for azaleas

Healthy blooms come from a healthy soil

Are your azaleas a sight for sore eyes this spring?  If not, you may need to improve your soil.

Azaleas need a rich, loamy, acid soil to thrive and flower well.  The only way you can achieve this is with lots of compost and mulch – and patience.

Step 1 – break up the surface of your existing soil and fork it over a bit, to open it up.

Step 2 – add heaps and heaps of compost.  If you don’t make this yourself, buy it in.  Or you can buy in a load of good soil – but that can be expensive.

Step 3 – test your soil for acidity.  This is measured on a scale of 1 – 14, with acid soils at the lower end of the scale, alkaline at the other and a neutral, balanced soil in the middle.  Azaleas like a soil acidity of 4 – 5.5 on the scale.  You can have your soil professionally tested or buy a kit from a garden centre – it’s easy to use.  If you can’t be bothered with any of this, just assume your soil needs acidifying and do this with…

Step 4 – mulch, using acid materials such as pine needles, shredded pine bark or leaf mould.  Mulch is NOT the same as compost – compost is the rich, soil-like product of mixing organic greenwaste and manure and heating it to a high temperature to break down these ingredients.  Added to your soil they enrich it and add essential nutrients.  Mulching with coarse, uncomposted materials improves the structure and texture of your soil and as it composts slowly, over time (much slower than pre-made compost) it also adds some nutrients.  Using compost and mulch together is the best and fastest way to improve soil, creating a growing environment for plant roots that is nutritious and able to retain moisture.

And that’s all there is to it.  Do this now, and keep on mulching regularly during the year and by next year you should have a soil that will grow perfect azaleas.  If you do, send me a photo!

In praise of older azaleas

People often ask me, what are the best azaleas to grow?

I always tell them – go for the oldies!  Because where azaleas are concerned, the oldies really ARE the goodies, if what you want are big, strong, floriferous and reliable plants to fill a space or make a show.

In this regard, the old indica species azaleas such as “Alphonse Anderson”, “Alba Magna” and “Exquisite” still out-perform every other type.  They go on blooming year after year, decade after decade, and all they require is a bit of water in very dry weather, regular mulching with acidic stuff such as leaf mould or straw, and a good cut-back after flowering.

Of course, there are lots of lovely azalea varieties available today in all sorts of colors.  And when it comes to selecting varieties of indica, mollis or kurume much depends on your climate – as a general rule indicas are the best for warmer climates while the deciduous mollis and compact kurumes thrive only in cold or upland climates.  Azaleas have been so hybridized and  genetically mucked about that the range available in a garden centre can be bewildering, unless you have a definite color scheme in mind.

The faithful old tall-growing indicas already mentioned here don’t produce autumn flowers, as do so many of the newer hybrid varieties .  But though they only flower in spring (with occasional  – but rare – spot flowering throughout the year) they do produce a good show for several weeks.  And they are much less prone to petal blight and just plain dropping down dead than the newbies, where breeding seems to be aimed more at bringing out yet another flashy-flowered brief sensation rather than a vigorous plant.

Alba magna blooming in spring