I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
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Friday, 1 February 2013

Factual footnote to fiction

Happier times, probably Princeton, NJ. With elder granddaughter Professional Bleeder

Doris appears at the end of Blest Redeemer. I needed a detail that caught her deprived, working-class upbringing in Bradford.

As Doris pondered her lips moved tentatively over her teeth at the front. Judith realised Doris had once done without teeth. Causing the shape of her mouth to shrink inwards. Doris said, “There was a time. A bad time. When…”  But that was as far as she was prepared to go. “Oh, you know. Teenage stuff. Summat and nowt.”

Re-reading this much reworked passage I abruptly recognised its origins. Beset by problems with my father my mother was told she must lose all her teeth. She still had pride in her looks and took it very badly. Understandably.

This was the late forties and total extractions were routine. For some they were a relief, an end to drilling. Not for my mother. Even I, a wretchedly self-centred twelve-year-old, noticed the way my mother subsequently slid out of her early thirties into despairing middle-age. I say I noticed this change but my viewpoint was entirely selfish. None of my teeth had ever been drilled and the idea terrified me. Would extraction be preferable? My mother, suffering  physical and emotional agonies, didn’t care to discuss things with her callow son.

Sixty-odd years later, like Doris, I ponder. Some other defect could herald Doris’s uncared-for youth. Have I been too casual, turning my mother’s Calvary into something that only exists through implication? That only arrived via my sub-conscious. Should I save that sad event for an occasion when I have an abiding need for poignancy?

Novel writing can lead to involuntary disinterment: old bones, wisps of hair, part of a shoe. It’s chilly inside looking out. Is it better – clearer? – outside?


  1. Our lives are the grist for our stories, whether simply retelling an event at family gatherings or when talking with siblings about our shared past, or - as you've done honorably here - calling upon a moment in the life of someone dear to you, something you experienced through your link to your mother, that makes your character real to your readers...at least, to this one, anyway.

    I was at the dentist's in Durham, NC, 60 years ago, watching him pull the last of my mother's teeth prior to her receiving full dentures. I must have looked horrified at the sight of all that blood, because he covered my mother's face with a small towel, took me to the window facing the street and told me to watch all the tiny people and cars below. I couldn't look at my mother for the rest of the day, and wouldn't let her kiss me goodnight.

    I used to feel guilty about that, but she understood. I understand how embarrassed she was, just like your mother was, because that was the feeling that came over me when I went through the same thing.

    I think you did this well, Robbie. But only you can know if it is right to leave it in.

  2. That was a hard to bear recollection which, I being younger, was less aware of.

    I think that having now found the source of your reference it may be better to find an alternative, but perhaps that is just a very personal reaction.

  3. However difficult it is to disguise the origins of our fiction from ourselves, others are less likely to recognise them. Your desciption certainly reminds me of my own mother's false teeth. And the sad, terrible sight of somone else's mother's teeth I saw fallen out of a rubbish bag some days after her funeral. Someone made a joke of it but I could not and cannot find it funny, even though I was not close to the old lady.

  4. Crow/Sir Hugh/Joe: This was was a two-stage process. As a minor character, up to that point, Doris, hadn't warranted much personal description. Unwittingly, she plays a huge part in Judith's redemptive climax which gives the novel its name. Finally Doris re-appears in dialogue with Judith in a coda which ends the story.

    At this point (the coda) Doris is animated, I hope, by what she says, but I needed a single descriptive detail that put her physically on the other side of a fence from Judith. The image of a woman's face collapsed from toothlessness has another source via a documentary on tooth care I saw in the RAF. But the way I have used this image is indirect; Judith merely infers (from certain evidence on Doris's face) that Doris not only has false teeth but that for a time existed in society without teeth.

    There is no comment on Judith's discovery in the passage you have all read nor anywhere else. I wanted it simply to be a bald fact that did not complicate what to me was the all-important final dialogue. Then I realised that the emotional roots lay with my mother and both Crow and Joe have added further layers of poignancy to the state of being toothless. In hard-hearted novelistic terms I recognise the added potential; from a personal point of view it may be possible to expand the scene so that sympathy (which I feel for my mother) is transmuted and directed from Judith towards Doris. In fact even as I write this the urge to pursue it is growing since (dimly) I envisage a new ending which indirectly involves me and my feelings for my mother.

    Sounds ghastly summarised in this way but I think it will work. More than that, I want it to work. Also it must work, completely disguised of course, without any sense of exploitation or betrayal.

    I am grateful to all three of you for responding and re-directing my thoughts. Having re-read this comment I am shocked at the wordage I have devoted to what should be an invisible and undescribed process. However I can assure it has been profitable to me if to no one else.

  5. Robbie, one of the reasons I enjoy reading your blog is that I learn how to be a better writer here. I'm glad you've made the process less invisible than you might have wished.

    Thank you.

  6. Crow: I had your second comment in mind as I rushed into the re-write of that final passage, interpersing the writing with picking up the Sunday paper at the filling station, preparing and eating brunch, watching the first half of the Italy vs. France rugby match, preparing an itinerary of London concerts which we will share with friends in the weeks ahead, and returning to Italy vs. France when it became likely that Italy (a comparative newcomer to this long established tournament) might win, which they did. It may sound as if I'm boasting that I can bang out fifty words and break off like this but it's fairly easy given that the action was clear in my mind as was the method I intended to describe it (via dialogue) and the form the dialogue would take. In fact if all fiction writing were like this it would be a rather boring process, a bit like digging in the garden.

    But of course as the predicted words appeared on the screen they took on a life of their own. Doris's side of the dialogue became more interesting than Judith's and gradually Doris's role became more dominant. And then I could see a completely different end to this end which seemed very risky, possibly melodramatic, perhaps fantastical (and I'm not a lover of fantasy) but I felt I had to pursue it. So I did and it took longer than I expected and I only just squeaked it in before it was time to pour out glasses of dry oloroso ahead of the fish pie VR had made for dinner.

    Followed by an opera on DVD (Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress) and late to bed. Up this morning and I still haven't looked at what I wrote since I wanted to get this off to you because of your encouragement and to let you know sometimes writing is a funny old process and there's more than just staring at the screen. I'd have liked to send you the newly written stuff (600 words became 1300 words) but it reveals the nature of Judith's rdemption and I'd rather you read that as an ending to the whole long story. And there's another 80,000 words which needs re-reading and revising. Cheers.