How to Write a Classic

This Week’s Bit of String: Risky book rescue

Induction week at my new job. We’re told to introduce ourselves with quirky facts.

A woman who immigrated from Russia once ran into a burning building to rescue a book. It was a rare, century-old encyclopaedia of horses.

Of course, my quirky fact is that I’ve written a novel (or two or three…). I practise my elevator pitch on them. The youngest newbie among us, who’s apparently won baton-twirling competitions, says, ‘I’d definitely read that.’ I assure them it’s worth saving from an inferno.

There’s a man in the group who’s never seen a single Star Wars film. I wonder if he feels left out because of the constant references to it. I’ve been wondering the same about people who have never read the classics. Is foundational knowledge of literary classics worthwhile? Does it help one better appreciate other arts and literature? What does it mean to be a classic, anyway, and might we write one ourselves?

Defining Classics

With help from Merriam-Websters, we can construe classics broadly if we choose. A classic sets a high standard in a particular form—any form. Therefore, Star Wars might not be a classic like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but it can be a classic Sci-Fi film, and books from any genre can be classics, too.

Brighton hotel on the site of Dickens' favourite inn.
I’m the sort of classics nerd who photographed this monstrous Brighton hotel just because its Blue Plaque told me Charles Dickens enjoyed staying on this site.

The strictest definition applies to literature of ancient Greece. These works influenced Shakespeare, who arguably enabled the evolution of most fiction. They are more pervasive than some might realise, frequently revived in cinema and even young adult books, plus forming the basis of our vocabulary with phrases such as siren, Oedipal complex, and Achilles heel.

In the Twittersphere, Leslie Scott gave me this wonderful definition: ‘If I instantly think “I want my kid to read this” … it’s a classic. There has to be a life lesson I need to share with my child.’ This allows classics a personal nature: we choose our own individual canon.

It also brings up another necessary quality: Classic literature conveys, often with impressive (if intimidating) scope, its originating time period. The Iliad tells us about political and religious alliances of ancient Greece. Bleak House portrays socioeconomic Victorian issues, even lampooning religious charities, and depicting the plight of women to an extent.

When contemplating which books we want out children to read, we also consider what we want them to learn from the times in which we’ve lived.

Updating Classics

So what books do we read today that might become classics of the future? Claire King, while admitting classic literature can be interesting from an ‘art history perspective,’ feels contemporary literature is more resonant. I agree there is a more accessible, sincere vein in today’s literature (including Claire’s gorgeous book The Night Rainbow). But do they resonate only with our contemporaries, or humanity throughout the ages?

With an increasing push for literature to be inclusive of social class, sexual preference, and ethnicity, today’s great works could have more staying power. The lack of diversity in some classics makes them seem ‘dull and patriarchal,’ Rita Gould tweets. Classics should be broad enough to at least acknowledge all aspects of a society.

Classic Features:

Characters: The protagonist should be particularly memorable, strong, and the perfect messenger. Elizabeth Bennett, Harry Potter, even flawed Miss Havisham or Macbeth are unforgettable because their roots are clearly mapped, forcing us to wonder if we, too, could be swayed.

'Nevermore' Jack o'Lantern inspired by Poe's The Raven
I’ve also been known to nerdily base jack o’lanterns on classics.

Setting: A classic boldly recreates its location. It will devote pages, almost give the setting its own voice. The Congolese jungles of The Poisonwood Bible; Arundhati Roy’s portrayal of Kerala in The God of Small Things, shown through children’s eyes without glossing over political unrest.

Message: It’s tricky to balance with character, and is perhaps what puts people off the original classics. A classic must convey an idea. In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s characterisation suffers for being idea-driven, but the message about love’s (or infatuation’s) power lives on. More contemporary writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, etc, better strike the balance.

Scope: We may groan at their size, but classics use their heft to diligently represent their culture. It enables Tolstoy to follow up on characters of various social status in Anna Karenina (although I’m still miffed he barely bothered mentioning the eponymous heroine in the last section). It enables Michael Chabon to interweave characters of diverse races and proclivities in Telegraph Avenue.

Detail: While covering broad topics and sweeping settings, a classic also offers telescopic detail rendering its populace and landscape vivid—including cultural landscape. Contemporary writers aren’t shy about teasing references to society’s peculiarities, and nor were traditional ones.

A bit of string: Most classics take their great shape from the slightest twist. Modern examples—the discovery of an unsent letter in Byatt’s Possession, the demise of a cheeky parrot in Love in the Time of Cholera—are slimmed proportions of ancient Greek ones: Paris falling for Helen, Jocasta heeding a prophecy about her infant son.

There are more options for defining classics, as listed in this excellent New York Review of Books article. Put together, by writers of any time period, they make books we hope our children will cherish, books worth saving from the ravages of time—and fire. What are the classics of your life?

 

Writing Away the Winter Blues

This week’s bit of string: Moss loaves and leaf stew

Narnia-like landscape
Found any countries in the cupboard lately?

As kids, my brother and sisters and I spent our days outside, fortifying dens to protect against unseen armies or searching for faeries. We often pretended Winter is Coming (I’m cross with Game of Thrones for purloining this premise), because the additional threat of nature made it more exciting. This necessitated hoarding of bread and fish: loaves of moss scraped from boulders, and bedraggled leaves caught from the stream.

Even now, the onset of cold and dreary weather gives me a thrill and causes me to particularly relish writing time. Am I alone in being inspired by winter?

Studying the Effects of Temperature on Creativity

There are many factors in the creative process. Research seems to prove that exposure to warm temperatures, even if it’s just holding a warm cup of coffee, inadvertently encourages people to treat each other more warmly, or at least to perceive each other as less emotionally cold. People are more inclined to notice relationships and connectedness when they are physically warm.

Given that conclusion, and my insistence that empathy is crucial to the writing process (and to life generally), these studies make it seem that cold weather might be bad for writing.

However, cold temperatures foster a different type of creativity. According to the same study as above, cold weather encourages metaphor recognition and originality of response. (The latter attribute was partly tested with a pasta-name-inventing exercise. How do they come up with these things?) So perhaps it’s actually a good time to be thinking of new story ideas, building new worlds, and incorporating symbols and meaning into our work.

Advantages of Winter Writing

Resourcefulness: Some of my most unique ideas come during cold months. A story featuring dolphins on Mars, for example, and my play A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, in which a secret government agency spies on people’s dreams to solve crime. Maybe we harbour an innate response to hazardous cold, an ability to consider options beyond the usual suspects. Isn’t that rather thrilling?

winter-branch
See? Beautiful.

Fewer distractions: Sometimes I think, thank goodness it’s horrible out; I can just get on with my writing. Everything’s stripped bare, and that’s beautiful to me. The bleaker landscape makes shape and rare colour stand out, and that emerges, I believe, in my writing.

Structural integrity: Even if the drop in temperature renders it more difficult to fully appreciate the pulsing inner warmth of my characters, this could be a good opportunity to look at the mechanics of plot and retrace the structural foundations of a tale.

Creating our own heat: Further data shows that winter causes us to seek psychological warmth. People renting online movies choose romantic ones more often in wintertime. What better place to seek warmth than with our characters, preferably while huddled under a quilt and sipping some hot fruity tea?

I realise I’m lucky. I no longer live in part of the world that gets extreme weather. And in any part of the world, winter can have a terrible effect on some people, bringing depression which might dry up the very creative juices which could have sustained them. If that describes you, there are pages on the NHS website and on this useful Writing and Wellness site, which I hope might help. It’s not a problem to be taken lightly.

Taking the Weather With You

frostywebAs it turns out, both my completed novels use extreme weather as a backdrop during the pinnacle of the action. In The Wrong Ten Seconds, tensions escalate during a brutal heatwave in a small midlands city. In Artefacts, everything unravels as the New England temperatures plummet:
“I love looking at you in this spooky snowstorm light.”
“It’s not really a storm.” Helen stared at the snow swirling around a streetlamp. Every now and then, a flake was caught in a gust, and blown upward against the bulb, brilliant as a firefly.

Selecting seasonal details to enhance characterisation and plot is another part of the fun.

Do you think winter affects your creative process? How much does it impact the characters in your stories?