De-Cluttering, Anyone? -- Mari Howard

Research... books

‘De-cluttering’ - as throwing out once-loved possessions is now called - is not really, as they say, my bag. That is, our home is set about with all kinds of delightful objects, all  much loved: books (in bookcases, more than ten, now I stop to count), and ornaments, cushions (great fun to throw around if you’re a visiting grandchild), paintings, pot plants, and of course, not forgetting, The Cat. None of these is ‘clutter’ except, perhaps,The Cat when he insists on sharing the screen and ‘helping’ with  a Zoom call.

However, the delight when something precious suddenly moves from one category - necessary research - to another - old information never again needed! Having just spent an hour or so browsing through super-stuffed lever-arch files, casting a last look over wonderfully informative scientific articles and sociological comment pieces on lifestyle today, it’s possible to say of nearly all these that they’ll not be needed again!  Once much loved, treasured, indeed printed-out from journals, websites, and on-line versions of special interest groups, can be taken out and dumped into the recycling bin. And likewise, such excitement earlier in the month, when it became obvious that my old Social and Political Science course-books are now wildly out of date, and if wanted by anyone at all browsing in a charity shop, it would be for history of thought rather than the current state of politics or the Welfare State.

Research - Lever-arch files

Research was totally fascinating, especially exploring the basics of scientific facts I needed to weave into a mystery, and the backgrounds of my fictional characters. Now, though, shall I ever read these articles again? What liberation that they now really can all go!  Freeing up shelves! The Mullins Family Saga (I know, if I’d planned it as a saga, a 3-part work, I’d have assigned these guys a more literary-sounding surname - Marchpayne, or Sayers, or even Hannay - well maybe not) but a more literary, beguiling name. As it is, the rather ordinary-sounding Mullins family is now travelling beyond where I shall observe their further antics, while hopefully entering the imaginations of increasing numbers of readers. 

I wonder how stories, and characters, wander into the thoughts of other writers - particularly I sometimes wonder about the very beginnings of a book in the head of a crime writers, or a cosy mystery writers. Do they, rather than meeting imaginary people in their heads meet, rather, plot twists, mysterious happenings, or shocking discoveries? Then add the characters?There was for me one day, -way back in about 2001, when Jenny Guthrie entered my life: as a small, precocious child, torn away from her London pre-prep by her parents’ divorce, and dumped instead in a village school in far west Cornwall. Her Dad had taken off to a new post at CALTEC, leaving his wife, a GP, to raise the kids alone. She had moved to rural Cornwall, to the damp cottage they’d bought to convert into a lovely holiday home… and met an art teacher from Essex with a young  daughter… And so, the saga was born.

As followers of this blog may recall, that whole part of Jenny’s childhood ended up being de-cluttered at the editing stage - but of course, in my character Jenny’s experience, it remains a real part of her growing years, and her character formation: the determination to do well at the local comprehensive, the precious place at Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, and the seduction of meeting a similarly ambitious young male Mullins. Together they form a (possibly formidable) team. Hence my research - hence the clutter of lever arch files, information from University prospectuses to narrowboats to Dolly the cloned sheep, to how genetics works (or doesn’t) and  how it might be helped along, and much beside. 

And, how immersed the writer can become in such information! Just as those us who write historical fiction must travel back, in imagination, fingers dancing over the keys in reality while inside their head they occupy a coracle rowed close to shore by fifth century monks, an early train puffing its way along the tracks, London to Dundee in a matter of hours not days, a worried civil servant observing the Fire of London, a desperate young woman lost on the Yorkshire moors, an Egyptian builder calculating the dimensions of the first pyramid, or a passenger ship becalmed in the Pacific. What details are necessary we read up, we learn, we work with, crafting a tale.

Until information becomes clutter, and then, recycling… and so, all passion spent  hopefully, someone else’s clutter, a book on the bedside table, or on the commute to work…


Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for your insightful and amusing post. It's right up my alley right now, amidst doing my best to declutter my latest work in progress!
Thanks for your comment! Always encouraging to know someone has read and decided it's
worth leaving their thoughts!
I did enjoy this post. Clutter is something that's almost always on my mind - and in my house, though unfortunately it tends to be old Amazon boxes and odd balls of knitting wool and not really anything I would have a pang of regret about parting with or that anyone else would want!

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