Those nitty-gritty details - Jo Carroll

I'm known as a travel writer. So writing a novel - and then having the temerity to publish it - has been a bit of a learning curve.

As a travel writer I try to bring the tiniest details to life: the harrumph of a hippo or the strength of the tiniest dung beetle. Deafening tropical rain. Equally essential are personal reflections on daily challenges that may be so very different from those I find at home, such as night buses and street food. And then there are the minutiae that I don't write about, like the toilets.

Which is the link (believe it or not) to my novel, The Planter's Daughter. Sara left Ireland during the famine, to live with an aunt in Liverpool. From there she headed for Australia, ending up in Hokitika - a gold town in New Zealand. These are the bones of the story - a bit like the bones of a travel book. But I needed to know more about the homes she lived in, the food she ate, how she kept clean. Okay, not much of that ended up in the novel, but it was still something I needed to know.

And the aspect that exercised me most was ... toilets. Especially in New Zealand, where she lived in an old fisherman's hut on the beach. No doubt the old fisherman widdled in the sea. But I could hardly have her lifting her ladylike skirts among the crabs and seagulls.

These days, we don't shy away from most bodily functions. It's ok to write about hernias and menstruation. Scenes in public toilets are used as a way of two characters sharing information with each other and the viewer or reader without anyone else knowing. But the rest of it ... well, it's not really a story, is it. The trouble is, when I'm watching a film, I can't help wondering about the heroine who is stuck on a ledge fighting off the bag guys for five hours. How come she never says, 'Hang on a minute, I'm just nipping off for a pee.'

You might wonder if there is anything interesting to say about toilets. And it may be my background as a travel writer (all travellers have toilet stories) that leaves me wondering about something so mundane.

How did I solve Sara's toilet challenge in New Zealand? If you really want to know, you'll have to read the book! (Here it is on Amazon.)

And yes, I do know that 'nitty' (in the title if this post) is Geordie for toilet.

If you want to know more about me and my writing, you can find it here -


Jan Needle said…
Craftiest sales pitch I've ever come across! On a point of order though madam chairperson, isn't the word netty? Always has been in my parts of the NE. Nearer home than the jungle, however, how did ladies manage on a train journey from London to Newcastle, say. You can hide a lot under a crinoline (I imagine) but surely not a WC. And they didn't have ladies' ones on choo choos.
Lydia Bennet said…
Netty is geordie for toilet - 'Nitty Nora the head explorer' was the woman who checked our heads for nits and lice. :) Toilets are routinely left out of stories and films and I do find it sometimes destroys suspension of disbelief. Similarly, the sense of smell is often left out of the reckoning - eg often in cop shows, they search buildings and are surprised to 'find' a body a week or more old by stumbling over it, when in fact they'd be retching from outside the front door!
Umberto Tosi said…
I look forward to reading The Planter's Daughter. I had similar experiences writing Ophelia Rising, which, besides personal narrative, turned into a picaresque adventure through late 16th-century Europe requiring research on my part, including my discovering that the early mass market presses of that day did indeed publish illustrated proto-travel guides.
Susan Price said…
After pondering the boggin'-'ole problem for a long time I'm convinced that the reason women have traditionally worn long skirts is that it allowed them to squat down whereever they were and take a pee while decently shrouded by material. Everyone knew they were pissing but that wasn't considered anything much worth mentioning in the past. Even today, ladies, if camping or spending a long time walking in the wilds, a long skirt and no knickers is the most practical way to dress

Beryl Bainbridge uses this toiletry freedom in 'Queenie's Story' which is very firmly based on diaries and recorded fact. Doctor Johnson is out walking with a grand lady whose name I forget for the moment. Grand lady is tired and so sits down for a rest on an upturned bucket (they're in a large garden.) She turns to speak to Johnson.

Johnson, however, having very bad sight, can't see that she's sitting on a bucket. He assumes that she's squatting to pee - and therefore, like a gentleman, he walks widely around her to allow her to get on with the business in peace. Lady thinks he's snubbed her.

And boggin'-'ole is Black Country for 'netty.'
JO said…
Many thanks for the 'netty' correction - my father was from the NE, and pronounced it 'nitty' but I never asked him how she spelt it!
Dennis Hamley said…
Netty or not, Hokitika is a lovely place.

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