My Family and Other Stereotypes

Ok. I’ve decided. I’m going to try to use this blog as a platform for planning my book. As I’m trying to organise my thoughts, I need somewhere to map all the stuff that comes out of my head. Ha! The blog. The perfect portal. Don’t worry. I won’t get offended if you leave now. Not at all.

One of my favourite books in terms of memoir is My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I have to say, I lose concentration when he gets into the really micro-zoological details later in the book which is ironic since I studied Zoology at University. I never said I was a good scientist! Still, the way that book opens – well, there is no equal. And yesterday, as I was working and reworking the first thousand words, Durrell’s book came into my mind.

How does he do it? How does he instantly engage his readers? He breathes life into his book in a seemingly effortless way. When I went to sleep last night, I was still turning this question over in my mind. I’ve been overly familiar and simultaneously too writerly in my first chapter. Techniques any reader with any sense of discernment looks right through for cheapness. As I slept, I was still turning it over.

I might have woke up dribbling on the pillow – good thing a blog format allows more easily for over-friendliness – but I woke up still thinking about my style versus his style. As the writer, I get the sense my reader isn’t fully engaged in my story by the end of chapter one. I hope I’m not being too demanding but I’d really like them to be. So how does Durrell do it by the end of paragraph one? Well, I had the eureka moment just after I wiped up morning saliva from the side of my mouth.

My instinct is deliberately not to write long reams explaining what happened to us before our trip. Durrell doesn’t either. What he does do though is to instantly, in his mum’s house during a wet and cold Bournemouth summer, completely reveal the personalities of his characters. His family.

There is some stereotyping going on. It has a sitcom feel for sure. His oldest brother Lawrence is the academic, arrogant type. His sister Margo the typical, self-conscious teenage girl, his other brother Leslie, the silent and enthusiastically violent one. Their mother keeping it all together with determined passivity. Roger the dog to help drive the story and further reveal characters.

Reading for me has always been about character. It drives my writing too – if not with the successful result I’d like it too. And when I mean successful I mean just engaging. With this in mind, I think I have to plan and develop my characters more carefully now. Our families are about as three-dimensional as we can get. Living with them, enduring our lives together makes it harder to step back and fictionalise them. Please forgive me. Maybe I could stereotype them instead.

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