WRITING A NOVEL – Voices and Narrators


I’m following an on-line course run by the Unthank School on How to Write a Novel.

We are in the early stages – it’s a 12 week programme – but are already sharing the way we begin our novels, the importance of an arresting first chapter, that essential opening line – the hook.

One of the exercises, and yes, we are being made to work, not just ploughing heedlessly on with the story, is to write several first lines and then choose one of them to launch the beginning of the novel.

I find that to write even one line I need to decide the kind of narrator I want to use and his or hers individual voice. In my case the narrator is a little girl called Vicky. Immediately, I realise I’m not even sure of her age. I keep changing my mind. I must take a decision. I take the logical approach.

The back story of Vicky’s parents’ story begins in 1945, at the end of WWII, during the occupation of Italy, when they marry. Not that I am going to reveal all their story – only the scenes which matter, those that which are recounted to Vicky later. Research has told me it is unlikely they could have left Italy until 1946. The plot demands that Vicky is born in England. So let’s make her birth day in 1947.  The exact date can wait.

Further research tells me that there are at least 3 events during spring and summer in 1955 England (the scope of real-time in the novel) which could be ‘plot diving boards’. That would make Vicky 8 years old when the narrative of the novel starts. I have the voice, that of a child old enough to listen to grown-ups conversation and think it over, but young enough to misunderstand, to get it all horribly wrong. Six is too young. Ten, maybe, too old. I’ll try 8 and see how I go, how the narrative works as I write more.

Now I have to be sure what kind of narrator Vicky is. Does she tell her story in 1st person present tense, 3rd person present tense (tricky; can sound a bit writerly, all the ‘she thinks’ and ‘she says’) or 3rd person past tense. For me, slightly dull and less immediate. Children live their lives in the present so I’ll opt for 1st person, present tense. I assume Vicky is what is known as an ‘unreliable narrator’. Until I consult John Mullan’s essential book, how novels work.* And I read and read.

*Published by Oxford University Press and one of my bibles.

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