Three questions about my work
By Rachel Dax
When people ask me about my work as an author and a filmmaker they tend to focus on three different questions.
1) Where do you get your ideas?
2) How do you do the historical research?
3) How do you make people feel that they are in such a different space and time without being ‘heavy’ on detail and description?
In this blog I will attempt to answer all three questions.
This is probably both the easiest and the hardest question to answer. In truth, I have absolutely no idea where any of it comes from. Each film I have written and each novel I have penned has come about because a random idea or picture has appeared in my head and then a story has formed really quickly around it. Sometimes this formation has been coherent, sometimes it has just been a key idea and it has only been when I have started writing that the rest of it has come.
A prime example of this would be Gabriel an ‘adult children’s book’ that I am working on at the moment. It was originally written as an animated script. I was travelling to the coast with my partner and the piece Gabriel’s Oboe by Ennio Morricone came on the radio. I turned to my partner and said, ‘Whenever I hear this piece of music I imagine a white goose singing at the top of his lungs whilst standing on a hill overlooking fields.’ My partner looked at me with a now familiar expression of ‘I have no idea how your mind works.’ But actually asked, ‘Why a goose and why would it be singing?’ And I found myself telling her a story about a goose who is thrown out of his gaggle because of a compulsive singing disorder in a culture where singing is forbidden. I had never thought about this story until that moment but within a few minutes it was so vivid that it had to be true – it was absolutely present – as if it had always been.
The Legend Of Pope Joan – the big project I have been writing this last year – also had an unusual genesis. I was in my MA Philosophy and Religion class a few years ago and a fellow teacher-student said she’d pinned a picture of Pope Joan to her classroom wall to inspire her female students to ‘reach for the top’. I was shocked that having already done a degree in Philosophy & Theology at a Catholic college and having been an out lesbian feminist for several years that I had never heard of Pope Joan and so I did some preliminary research and was amazed by her. I was not a writer or filmmaker at the time so once my interest was satisfied she went in a file somewhere on my mind’s harddrive and lay there dormant for a very long time. It was actually eight years after, when I had to write a play for part of a Drama course that she resurrected. As soon as I decided on Pope Joan as my topic, a narrative involving genderbending and multiple sexualities came to me and after an hour of what can only be described as ‘automatic writing’ – I had a clear beginning, middle and end with all the major characters, plot points and twists. Five years later, as I complete the three part novel version of this tale, all those original characters, plot points and twists are still there and in pretty much the same order, just many, many more have been layered in.
So, it seems to be the case that this just stuff just ‘arrives’ and then I do something about it…
2) How I do my research…
I literally just started writing After The Night having watched Yield To The Night, the film that inspired it, for the first time since being a teenager and becoming a bit obsessed with it – rewatching it several times. I wrote almost half of After The Night before I had no choice but to do research. When it came to it, I was extremely lucky as I soon found that the research was almost all done for me. Because of having watched Yield To The Night so many times I already knew how the prison looked and what the guards would have been wearing etc.. But what came as a gift, was discovering that Joan Henry, the author of the novel and scriptwriter of the film Yield To The Night had actually been to prison herself and had also written a book called Who Lie In Gaol describing her experiences in graphic detail. So landed in my lap were descriptions of prison routines, jobs, conditions, attitudes right from the horse’s mouth. I had to alter a few things I had previously guessed at but most of these changes were easily integrated and all the new detail really helped flesh out places where I had previously struggled to create a feeling of authenticity. When I wrote After The Night in 2003 trying to research anything on the internet was a bit of a nightmare and I found very little. Now, I am sure there is a whole wealth of salient information I would find. I’m just grateful that Joan Henry wrote her books and I wish she was still alive so I could thank her.
With my other projects it hasn’t been quite so ‘handed on a plate’ but I am lucky because I have been to university far too many times for my own good and all this study, along with nearly seventeen years of being a teacher has given me the ability to find relevant information quickly and be able to hone in on what I need and ditch the rest.
Researching Pope Joan has been really interesting. Initially after my ‘automatic writing’ episode described above, I bought a book called The She-Pope by Peter Stanford, which looks at the evidence for and against Joan being an historical person. This was hugely helpful for the play, but when it came to writing the novel, was nowhere near enough. Without the internet I could not have written The Legend Of Pope Joan as I have. It would have taken years of painstaking research in libraries all over the world to get it right and quite frankly, I’m not that patient! Google searches and Wikipedia have given me answers to nearly every question I’ve had. In academic circles, Wikipedia is very much maligned, but actually when it comes to researching the 9th Century it is a great resource – very few pranksters, I think, would get a kick out of bastardising information about Pope Leo IV or details about how seminaries worked in the middle ages – there would be nothing in it for them – so much of the information is reliable. At least reliable enough for writing a novel, rather than a PhD…
This is my own personal alchemy. It comes from loving really well-told, complex stories but absolutely hating wading through paragraphs of description. Some people love ‘good literary writing’ and I am in awe of people who can read the heavy stuff on a regular basis. But I am essentially a lazy reader. I want character and plot and I want to be kept constantly engaged. So description, however beautiful and literary it may be, does absolutely nothing for me unless I am in a very peculiar mood.
On the other hand, there are only so many formulaic ‘beach books’ a girl can read in her life before switching off, and believe me I’ve read loads of those and can no longer get excited about them.
So really, I like to write at the level I like to read – novels that have the ease of reading of a ‘beach book’ but the depth of character and plot of a literary classic. It’s all about the cusp for me…
Being a film writer helps enormously with this process. When writing a filmscript if the scene demands a mountainscape and a key dwelling you must categorically not describe any detail that is not essential to the plot – so a scene might have at the top
BREATHTAKING MOUNTAINSCAPE (MORNING), SMOKE RISING FROM DISTANT CABIN. RACHEL STANDS IN A SHAFT OF LIGHT STARING INTENSELY AT SMOKE…
That’s it! Then would come the dialogue or plot event.
So when I write novels, I pretty much do the same thing. I slip in the relevant bits of scenery but I let the reader create the image for themselves in their own mental cinema. I don’t need to do it, I just need to give the most basic outline and the reader does the rest. The same applies in terms of handling the historical – I make sure I have the right word, or just enough description of the object for the reader to know what it is and then move on. I want my reader to be engaged in the action and feel like they know the characters as though they could feel their breath on their skin. That cannot happen if detail and description are in the way, it can only happen through dialogue and the characters’ internal and external reactions to what comes their way. One of the most consistent pieces of positive feedback I get from my readers is that they feel like they are actually ‘present’ amidst the action, so I must be doing something right!
I hope this has been of interest to you.
Rachel Dax is a UK writer and filmmaker.
Rachel grew up in Birmingham and went on to study Philosophy & Theology at University of London. After several years teaching and gaining an MA in Philosophy and Religion, she then moved to Wales and pursued a career in Drama and did a BA in Theatre & Media and an MA in Filmmaking. Rachel is the author of the novel After The Night – a sweeping lesbian love story set in a British prison in 1960, which examines homophobic prejudices and societal pressures alongside the romantic narrative.
Her second novel The Legend Of Pope Joan is a three part fast-paced pansexual, gender-bending, theological extravaganza set in the 9th Century. Part 1. Frankia was released in January 2013 and parts 2 & 3 will follow in the spring.
Rachel Dax is also a filmmaker. She has written, produced, directed and edited several short films, many of which have had thousands of hits on the internet. She also has three feature film projects in development. Film, theatre, literature, music, philosophy, religion and LGBTQ identities are her primary interests. If she is not making a film, directing a play or writing a novel, you will find Rachel lying on the sofa reading a great book or enjoying a good drama.
Some of her favourite books are The Remarkable Journey Of Miss Tranby Quirke by Elizabeth Ridley, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, Carol by Patricia Highsmith, Tipping The Velvet & Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder and Maurice by E M Forster.
AFTER THE NIGHT ON AMAZON UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/After-The-Night-ebook/dp/B0042P5GO4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359201916&sr=8-1
THE LEGEND OF POPE JOAN PART 1. FRANKIA ON AMAZON UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Legend-Pope-Joan-Frankia-ebook/dp/B00AXLV4TM/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1359203319&sr=8-2