rules for writing

The Reminiscing Voice

In a previous post I said how partial I am to first person narrator for writing fiction. Without realizing it, I have at times been seduced by a style within that category, the reminiscing voice.

It took me a while to figure this out. I am right now in the process of editing the second novel of my Herbert West series in preparation for publication later this year. A fellow writer who has read most of the manuscript recently commented that certain sections were too slow, with too many details not relevant to the story. Years ago, a letter from a publisher rejecting this work annoyed me by using the term “plodding prose.” When I discussed this at the time with another fellow writer, we concluded that the removed, reflective quality of the narrative voice may have been what led to this opinion.

Thinking about this some more, I have identified this style of narrative as the reminiscing voice. The narrator is remembering events long after they have occurred, from a perspective of stillness and calm. Whatever the narrator’s problems, conflicts and sufferings may have been, they are over, but they were important events in the life of this character, and he or she is about to relate them to the reader.

Today I took a quick look among my books to find examples of the reminiscing voice.  As an aside, I will mention that many of the books I own — never to be dignified with the terms “collection” or “library” — were purchased in the 1970s and ’80s at used bookstores with no pretensions to the antiquarian. One of these, Ted Fraser’s Book Bin in Vancouver, B.C., actually had “bargain barrels” — big wooden barrels full of books selling at ten cents apiece. Lord only knows what was at the bottom of those barrels. The fact that many of my best-loved reads came from sources such as this should tell you something.

Back to the reminiscing voice. Here is the beginning of The Crystal Cave, the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series:

I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than the earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave.

This is followed by four substantial paragraphs about memory and remembering, before the story begins. And even then, we are still in the Prologue.

Another example, this one the first paragraph of The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams (a book that has huge flaws, but which I re-read every few years because… Well, I don’t actually know why):

All day it has been windy — strange weather for late July — the wind swirling through the hedges like an invisible flood-tide among seaweed; tugging, compelling them in its own direction, dragging them one way until the patches of elder and privet sagged outward from the tougher stretches of blackthorn on either side. It ripped the purple clematis from its trellis and whirled away twigs and green leaves from the oaks at the bottom of the shrubbery.

And on and on like this for another two long paragraphs which are word-pictures of a garden and landscape, really quite vivid, but definitely not germane to the story of how the narrator met and lost his wife, the mysterious Karin. Adams breaks another Rule of Writing here, which is never to begin with a description of weather.

For some reason, I find beginnings of this sort compelling, both to read and to write. To me, they are like slow crescendos, starting out quietly and building to a climax in which the narrator is no longer merely remembering, but reliving. But it appears that others disagree. Slow and not sufficiently relevant, they say, and it is difficult to argue with these assessments. “Yes, but I like it, ” isn’t really an argument.

I think it’s OK to use the reminiscing voice if it suits the narrator and his or her situation, but as with so many other things, moderation is the key. Use the reflective style to set the scene and indicate something about the narrator’s personality, but move fairly soon into reliving mode. This is related to the advice about “back story,” that it’s best presented in small, cunningly concealed doses, rather than as a lengthy, identifiable section — sort of like coating a cat pill in butter to make it slip down more easily.

That is if you are following the rules because you must please those who make them, be they instructors, editors or publishers. If you are writing to please only yourself or whatever spirit has inspired you to write, and the reminiscing voice is the voice that speaks, go for it. When I was only a reader and not a writer, I would begin to read a novel and continue to read it to the end, if its voice pleased, allured or fascinated me, never mind why. Much of this writing, I suspect, broke some sort of rule. It’s nearly impossible to identify the precise qualities of prose that attract or repel a particular reader, which is why it is also nearly impossible to come up with a set of definitive rules for writing.

I consider the reminiscing voice at the beginning of a novel to be a signal to the reader that the narrator has something important to say, but isn’t going to launch into the story until the reader is ready to listen. It’s sort of like the opening credits in a movie, that let you settle into your seat, position your popcorn and get set to watch. Or like fancy gift wrapping on a special present, that gives you an opportunity to whet your anticipation. Or like foreplay.


That’s the word I use most often to describe a piece of writing that has impressed me. If I can apply that word to a novel, I will likely remember it for a long time.

I just finished reading a historical mystery by P.B. Ryan, Still Life With Murder. The central matter of a mystery novel is “Who did it?” In this case, that question was overshadowed by the setting (Boston in the “gilded age”) and the principal characters (Nell Sweeney with her problematic past and Will Hewitt with his addictions and scarred psyche). These people were interesting. I wanted to know how things turned out for them, never mind who did the murder. That revelation, when it came, felt almost like a distraction.

The novel contains two or three fairly lengthy scenes consisting of dialogue between the two principal characters, Nell and Will. Their focus is Will’s self-destructive impulses, his reasons for them, and why he should consider alternatives. These scenes almost verge on the repetitious and possibly tedious, except that one of them takes place in an opium den and includes a detailed description of the rather complicated process of smoking opium. That is interesting and memorable. P.B. Ryan has clearly done her research, on that topic and others featured in this novel, making it more than a run of the mill “whodunit.”

Writers are always told to “plant a hook” in the opening paragraph of a novel — something that will keep the reader reading by raising questions in his or her mind that need to be answered. “Who is this person, where are they, how did they get into this situation and what will happen to them?”

Well, I admit to a somewhat jaundiced view of the ever-popular Rules for Writers. I suspect that many of them are formulated primarily for the convenience of jaded editors and others who perforce have to plough through dozens or hundreds of “submissions” by hopeful writers seeking publication or prizes. The tolerance of these folks is low for writing whose pace is a little slow, in which dramatic action and dire situations aren’t presented on the first page. Some ordinary readers share this attitude, but not all. Many are quite willing to take the long way through a piece of fiction, but only if it’s interesting.

Whether or not the writer plants a hook doesn’t matter. It’s not enough to grab the reader’s attention in the opening scenes of your opus. You have to earn it on every page, and cliff-hangers and chase scenes aren’t always enough. You need to create interesting characters doing interesting things, quite apart from the plot.

Remember Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code?  Some consider it a wonderful read, full of action and gripping situations. Given that it was inspired by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a mess of crackpot but interesting (there’s that word again) theories about Jesus Christ, the Knights Templar and the Merovingian dynasty, you would expect that it couldn’t fail to be a fascinating read. But I found it a great disappointment, mostly because the main characters were cardboard cutouts. Mr. Brown should have taken up more pages making them into real people with intriguing quirks and bumps, and included more substance about the Knights Templar and the Merovingians instead of dragging us through the streets of Paris pursued by an albino monk wearing a self-torture device.

It’s a tricky business, creating and sustaining interesting stuff. Characters may be brought to life with distinctive characteristics and speech habits and hints of interesting backgrounds. Yes, hints. Giving a curriculum vitae or a mini-biography is not usually recommended, but weaving in details, memories of important incidents in the person’s life, and opinions coloured by their past experiences can build up a multi-coloured and textured individual that a reader will care about. Even more problematic is the business of working in facts about some topic; from intriguing tidbit to the dreaded “information dump” is a small but crucial step. I will note here, however, that “information dump” may just be a term meaning “stuff I’m not interested in.” It depends on the individual reader and his or her tastes. The writer always takes a chance by veering away from the plot to introduce stuff about, say, sheep-shearing or winemaking or undertaking. Think of Victor Hugo’s enormous digressions into history in Les Miserables. Some may have found the history of the Paris sewers utterly fascinating; most, I’ll bet, skipped over that part to find out what happened to Jean Valjean and Marius. And Les Miserables was published in 1862. These days, it’s probably best to keep one’s digressions short or even to make them unrecognizable.

One criterion is how fascinating the writer finds that extra topic. Chances are that if you yourself are passionately interested in something, that passion will find its way into your writing about it and generate interest in your readers. When I was writing my novel The Friendship of Mortals, I was reading about alchemy, especially its symbolic aspects as expounded upon by Carl Jung. Something of that subject found its way into the novel. So it may be with whatever interests a writer has — gardening or bowling or violin making. Use them in your writing to give it heft and texture.

In a way it’s like cooking. A good novel is like a well-prepared dish, with pleasing combinations of flavours and textures. Spices should enhance, not dominate. A certain amount of crunch is good, but too much makes eating into hard work. Above all, the dish must be one to be savoured, not gulped down as quickly as possible to get to the bottom of the vessel in which it’s contained. Don’t make your novel a smoothie that goes down fast without intriguing aromas and flavours. Make it interesting — create a feast for the mind and imagination.