Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The devil in the details

Please forgive my long absence. For the last three weeks I have been participating in a writing residency with the BBC working on their “Story Story” radio drama series. It was a deeply rewarding experience. I learned some invaluable lessons about the creative process and the creative people behind it. However, I think what I am most grateful for, is what I learned about context.

Every story has a setting. We spend our lives immersed in histories, cultures and backgrounds which we are only barely aware of. When writing fiction that is set in the real world, we don’t have to stretch too far to find the culture or the history of our world. There are larger economic and socio-political issues that we can easily draw upon to fill our narrative and influence our character. But those of us who dabble in the speculative must build these contexts from scratch.

The world of “Story Story” is simple in its concept: A marketplace in a lower middle-class community bordered by a motor park. In it, people struggle to make ends meet, find love, hatch schemes and even commit crimes. In this world, a wide variety of characters from different backgrounds come together to form a vibrant community. The setting is so familiar and the characters so interesting, that any writer that stumbles upon this world, will find themselves transported.

“Story Story” benefits from immediately recognisable contexts of ethnicity, gender, religion and even nationality. It is a sketch of a simple outline and the reader fills in the rest. It made me realize that writing a world isn’t so much about filling it with detail, but about filling it with the right details so that the reader can see what you want them to see. Characters should be complex, but their world doesn’t have to be.