David Mitchell

Character Building

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They were talking about writer’s notebooks on Radio 3’s Freethinking – Writers and their notebooks (21st May 2014)

Now, I love notebooks. In fact I love all stationery (apart from hole punches which, to my mind, are too Stalinist to count as proper stationery) Everything else, however, excites me – from fountain pens to pencils, from foolscap to stencils.  Perhaps it’s because I can sense the budding creativity each item might help bring forth. Or, perhaps, I’m just weird.

The pens! And coloured pencils! A warren of excitement
The pens! And coloured pencils! A warren of excitement

My love reaches its fetishistic peak with notebooks. Spiral-spined, leather bound, plain, lined, squared, A5, A4, thick or thin papered. It doesn’t matter, they are all  potential receptacles for my literary lust.


Anyway, part of the program was a short interview with David Mitchell (the author of Cloud Atlas, not the ranting comedian) and he spoke about some of the things he kept in his notebooks.

Some of the previous guests interviewed had confessed to lists of random things or conversation snippets or brief descriptions of unusual objects or scenes. All of these things are predictable and useful. I’ve done the same and enjoy flicking through an old notebook, trying to work out how the flotsam and jetsam of thought might have fitted together when I was jotting it all down.

But David Mitchell described an entirely original (to me) use for his notebooks. He writes letters in them. Fictional letters to and from the characters appearing in his current work in progress. He said it helps him get under the skin of the person he’s imagining. Obviously, from the content of the letters, he can learn explicit things about them. But he can also imply more subtle information from the style, the vocabulary, the tone.

I think this is a brilliant idea which I am going to steal. It could lead to truly interesting revelations about all sorts of people. I can write any letter, asking any question to any character at any point – before, during or after the events in my novel. Their letter back surely can only make them richer and more vivid in my mind’s eye.

One of the other tips for writing I’ve frequently heard is: “just write rubbish if you’re stuck”. There are various versions of this. A famous author, whose name I have forgotten, wrote that when she stumbled into a Writer’s Block she’d drink some gin, write two pages of nonsense and go to sleep. Upon waking she would find the Block behind her. Other luminaries have professed to writing a few hundred words of waffle first thing just to get the juices flowing, like an athlete limbering up before a race. I’ve always liked the idea, but found it impossible to find rubbish to write about. I’d end up spending half an hour trying to decide what to write and end up having to hurdle two Writer’s Blocks instead of one…

But this is perfect.

I do declare that from this day on I shall write a letter to or from one of my own characters. This time next month I shall post some of the 30 letters I’ll have written…