PTSD in Fiction

My female protagonist in The Scottish Exiles, has just experienced a trauma which has left her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In her article Post Traumatic Distress Disorder in Fiction – Part 1  Ava Jarvis discusses some of the problems with fictional PTSD (I am also bookmarking 2, 3 and 4 for later).  Jarvis warns against two types of “Did Not Do The Research” portrayals.  The first she calls ‘What PTSD?’ whereby ‘perhaps a few days, even only hours later, the character is conveniently recovered enough to move to the next plot point.’ I am wary of this.  Once Rosa meets Davey and things hot up, I need not to forget Rosa’s PTSD.  Yes she can recover gradually, but not miraculously. The second, ‘Set Piece PTSD’, is where the only symptom is flashbacks, leading to intense drama and violence etc, after which the character reverts to the first type. She warns that not only do authors miss the opportunities afforded by subtle yet complex characterisation of PTSD, but fiction informs readers who then assume real people’s experiences are these caricatures.  I do not wish to fall into either trap.

My research is starting with Glenn Shiraldi’s  The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, a thorough yet accessible read.

It lists the causes, symptoms and clinical diagnostic criteria, including exposure, intrusions, avoidance, negative thinking, reactivity, duration of at least 1 month and life disruption.

Shiraldi says ‘[f]irst we maintain the dread of triggers.’ I am on the right track for my first few chapters, with Rosa avoiding thoughts of the trauma and the associated road and car. But this is not static. There are different stages of PTSD and I will need a ‘PTSD arc’ for Rosa, with nuances that will make her condition authentic.  Responses can vary, and Rosa ‘…might feel like a different person since the trauma.’  I am using her first few chapters to indicate this.

The first chapter is the immediate aftermath. The US Department of Veteran Affairs states: ‘Responses in the days that follow trauma are characterized by being under stress, use of extreme defenses, (such as over control of emotions or dissociation), and a focus on physical and emotional survival.’

Chapter 2 is a flashback to her old self, the start of the ‘past Rosa’ storyline, which also serves to demonstrate her pre-trauma character.  Throughout the ensuing chapters, as well as PTSD tropes,  I want to infuse a general feeling of disturbance and preoccupation.

Three books have been helpful with this.  All three books observe close detail, the characters are observant and insightful, with heightened acuity. This is a delightful expositional tool, but is also congruent with emotionally vulnerable people, wary of, and attuned to, others.

In Pollard Beatty uses compound sentences where memories, dialogue, thoughts and speculation run into each other as a stream of consciousness, without speech marks or punctuation to separate clauses.

In The Road McCarthy also has no chapters, and uses incomplete sentences, with simple statements of what ‘is’, without verbs and adverbs, almost a list. Again no speech marks for dialogue, although he does use new lines.

In The Trick is to Keep Breathing Galloway also has no speech marks, some dialogue is written as a script, some in capitals. Descriptions of what is happening and what she thinks and feel are intermingled as stream of consciousness, sometimes breaking off mid sentence, or right justified, or in list form, or as illustrations of signs and notes.  She uses italics for flashbacks but with no consistency.

These books, all a pleasure to read, have left me thinking: maybe I write too well.  Maybe my efforts at linguistic and grammatical precision are getting in the way of character and voice.  I think I might try to free my characters up a bit, to be themselves, flaws and all.


The Solitary Protagonist

How are voice and character developed when a character is alone in the wilderness, with no one else to bounce off, and no hubbub of everyday life?

In my novel in progress, my impetuous, arrogant, demanding, unpredictable, prickly protagonist Rosa finds allies in the women, holds her own with the men and causes plenty of conflict in any scene she is in – except when she’s on her own.

And this is a bit of a problem, because in the first few chapters she is alone on the moor, running away, recovering from a traumatic experience and surviving alone in the wilds.

So now I am gobbling up books with solitary protagonists in a survivalist setting, to see how they accomplish it.

My Side of the Mountain by Jean George is about a boy who runs away from home and lives in the woods in the Catskill Mountains.

Narrated in first person past tense, Sam’s narration suggests he is talking straight to the reader, as he reflects on his own early incompetence, and advises us about camp craft techniques.  He tells us what he was thinking, using tags. There are animals in Sam’s wood, and he trains a falcon so there is continually ‘someone’ to speak to, although he does this sparingly. Similarly he speaks aloud to other wild animals he befriends. He also talks aloud to himself occasionally, and he does meet a few humans and have brief dialogue with them.

Pollard by Laura Beatty is the story of a ‘woman of the road’ who left home at 15 to live permanently in the woods.

It is written in close third person and Anne’s voice is strong and characterful from the outset.  Her thoughts and feelings are woven into the text, as is dialogue, which has no speech marks and contributes to her stream of consciousness.  This is cleverly done, because it conveys her bafflement with the world and her family. In the early chapters she has some interaction with her family, which allows us to hear her voice and see her character.

In The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a father and son walk across post-apocalyptic America.

It is not strictly a solitary protagonist because ‘the man’ is with his son, but I have included it because there is a feeling of isolation throughout. There is no apparent distinction in voice between when he is with his son, and when he goes off alone or his son is asleep. McCarthy writes in close third person, past tense.  His internal dialogue intermingles with description, interpretation of the environment and with dialogue. Like in Pollard, there are no speech marks. In this case it portrays his despair, the futility, as if identity is no longer a thing.

In the The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, protagonist Katniss is a ‘tribute’ in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death reality TV show.

She participates alone, although sometimes interacts with other characters. Written in first person present tense, it has immediacy . We are with Katniss’s thoughts throughout, and like Anne’s and ‘the man’s’ it comes across as a stream of consciousness. In one passage she can tell us what she is doing, how she is feeling emotionally, what a voice in the back of her head is saying, theories about other people’s motives and what she is feeling physically. In this way she has an ongoing and seamless dialogue with herself and with us, although she also states some thoughts expressly, in italics, and tagged, as if talking to herself.

In Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan, Julius lives alone in a cabin in the woods, and seeks revenge on the person who shot his dog.

In the first three chapters the protagonist is alone. His dog has disappeared. He spends much of this time on exposition, telling us the backstory of his cabin, his reading matter and his parents. This tells us little about his character and demonstrates no voice – unless we are to assume he is a bit of a bore. It doesn’t seem part of the story.


So, what have I learnt to help me with The Scottish Exiles? My current draft was in first person, past tense. Having tried all four combinations, and noting the variety in these titles, I am not convinced that either narrative viewpoint or tense have a conclusive bearing on the voice and character of a solitary protagonist in a survival situation.  However, the immediacy of The Hunger  Games is compelling so I have rewritten in present tense.

This immediacy I want to portray rules out the ‘reporting later’ style in My Side of the Mountain. I have considered starting the story later and having Rosa tell this part of her tale to male protagonist Davey, but I would I lose the opportunity to establish the moorland setting and the dystopian world at the start of the book.  Although I am not tempted to have Rosa spending her first few scenes on exposition about her family and what she likes to read, the present tense makes it easier to move smoothly to the past for a contextual backstory chapter.

Rosa’s thoughts were expressed directly, with distinctly worded thoughts in italics, but without tags because I don’t want to create a ‘looking back’ sort of distance.  Following this exercise, I have removed the italics.  Rosa’s consciousness of her immediate surroundings, her plight and her memories are intended to be intermingled, and Anne’s in Pollard  and ‘the man’s in The Road, each conveying a slight madness or desperation, are nearest to how I want Rosa to be.


Does Sex Still Sell?

Outlander (Outlander #1)Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is with great affection and gratitude that I add a belated review for this book, which I first read in 2013. Not only did it finally send me to Scotland, it also prompted me to begin my own work in progress novel The Scottish Exiles. So what was it about this book that informed and inspired me so?

The writing style
Diana Gabaldon’s writing style is not literary, but it is educated. She has several degrees and had already published non fiction books. I like this balance: I don’t personally enjoy purple prose; I prefer plain speaking. But I do like a book to be well-written. This is where I aspire to place myself as a writer.

The adventure
It is what I call ‘a stonking good adventure’. Gabaldon gets plaudits for her well researched historical fiction. This was wasted on me, and I didn’t check her sources, instead just enjoing it for what it was. Although my novel is not historical, and is in fact set in the future, the ‘history’ will be accurate, at least until the last edit! It is also the history of the Scots in the hands of the English that informs and underlies my fictional narrative.

The genre
Diana Gabaldon describes her book as ‘multigenre’, and I am encouraged that this does not seem to have adversely affected its popularity. Tutor Meredith Miller Meredith Miller, author of Little Wrecks, and Falmouth University Writer in Residence Wyl Menmuir, author of The Many, both say: write the book you want to write and worry about the genre later. This is exactly what Gabaldon did, and so am I.

The Scots and Scotland
Diana Gabaldon had never been to Scotland when she wrote this, the first in the series, and nor had I when I read it. However she received plaudits for getting it right – almost certainly attributable to her meticulous research. I have had many Scottish friends and lovers, so the characters and dialogue come naturally, particularly that of Davey Kirk. The first book in my series does not take place in Scotland: unlike Gabaldon, I wanted to immerse myself in the location. I live near Dartmoor, a similarly wild and beautiful place, and it was when I asked myself: ‘What could a Scotsman be doing on Dartmoor? that the idea of exile was born. The ‘hot Scot’ features similarly in my novel, hence I see it appealing to Outlander readers, despite some genre differences.

The sex
I read Outlander as a romance, and having read reviews I was prepared for the hot scenes. In my opinion Gabaldon does these appropriately and well. I like detailed writing, and although good taste is essential it is always a little odd in a romance if you get to know everything but. I am convinced that the hot scenes helped the book’s great popularity, and yet I still find myself wondering whether to include them. My mentioning to author and commissioning editor Susannah Marriott the question ‘Does sex still sell?’, she assures me the answer is ‘Yes’. At present my protagonists have not met, so luckily my critiquing MA peers have been spared blushes (as have I).

The point of view
Gabaldon uses Claire’s first person viewpoint throughout in Outlander but in the sequels she introduces Jamie’s third person viewpoint yet keeps Claire in first. This seems to work: it wasn’t particularly noticeable. It seemed appropriate, as it is firmly Claire’s story. I think the sex scenes worked better in first person, because it was as if Claire was choosing to divulge intimacies. This works a lot less well for Claire’s daughter Brianna and her husband (both third person viewpoint characters) – there is something voyeuristic about it, and since we have identified so closely with Claire, it feels a little odd to be so intimate with her daughter. In my novel, the only sex scenes will be between Rosa and Davey. It is a romance; their romance.

The path to publication
Diana Gabaldon is generous with her story, with numerous accounts of how she didn’t tell anyone she was writing a novel, and did not even intend to expect it to be published. She then inadvertently posted an excerpt on a CompuServe writers’ forum, from which it snowballed. Having attended several London Book Fair seminars on writer branding, I am inspired by this. There is a compelling symbiosis between producing a book that people really want to read, and ‘putting yourself out there’. I see no way of avoiding either.

In the meantime, thank you Diana Gabaldon. I owe you.

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Time Management for Writers

So you have a lot of work to do, so you are sitting down all the time, drinking coffee and scrunching your spine into the chair. Meanwhile all that housework and gardening and DIY are piling up and making your life feel chaotic and indulgent.  So what do you do?

I have adopted a simple but effective system of 45 minutes on / 15 minutes off.

But when I say ‘off’, what I actually mean is doing something else.  So I start on the hour, write for 45 minutes, and then I get up and mow a bit of the lawn, put on a batch of washing, do the washing-up, tidy my bedroom, recycle the beer bottles, etc.  On the hour, I sit back down and do some more writing.

What have I observed?

  • If I do 3 or 4 rounds a day, I can make huge progress with the writing, but also  get quite a lot of stuff done;
  • It is surprising what can be achieved in 1 minute;
  • 50 minutes is too long; 45 minutes is just right;
  • I get more done doing this than I do if I have a whole day ‘free’, because it makes me do it and do it quickly;
  • I realise that there are no minutes in the day for simply fiddling about with Facebook;
  • I don’t get stiff;
  • I can’t wait to get back to the writing.

What can you do in 1 minute?

Structure, viewpoint, tense

Find MeFind Me by J.S. Monroe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book proved incredibly useful for my work on structure and modes of narration. It came to me serendipitously as a freebie from the London Book Fair just as I was considering for The Scottish Exiles the question: ‘What stories do I want to tell?’ I had identified four interweaving plot lines which, like in Find Me, involved different characters, and different points in time.

In part one of Find Me, the basic structure is that Jar tells the present (‘real time’) and Rosa tells the past, in alternate chapters. In part two Rosa tells the real time present in italics, and Martin is introduced as a viewpoint character. This is an unwelcome jolt, especially as he is not a sympathetic character. In my novel I will avoid this by introducing each character early and sticking with them throughout, albeit to varying degrees.

In Find Me, Munroe’s uses of past and present tense are quite complex. For example Rosa, telling what happened in the past (5 years ago), is telling it in the present tense (as a diary) but referring both to the immediate past (earlier in the evening) and to the ‘present’. There is a difference between ‘linguistic past’ and ‘story past’. I must note that this complexity is all good: it doesn’t come over as complicated as my analysis suggests; it is more or less invisible, yet also subtly rich.

My current strategy, after reading Find Me, is to attempt four interweaving stories of female protagonist present, female protagonist past, male protagonist present and antagonist present, all culminating in the climax: i.e. ‘what happened’.

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How to Learn ‘How To’ From Fiction

The Lie of the LandThe Lie of the Land by Sam North

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I chose this book because my novel in progress, The Scottish Exiles, is set on Dartmoor. I live near Dartmoor and can do writing research trips with ease, but I don’t want my story to read like a natural history book. I wanted to see how authors portray Dartmoor in fiction; how they encapsulate its atmosphere. I also wanted to see whether I am on the right track about daily life on Dartmoor: is my character’s life plausible? Am I making it too easy for him? Are his preoccupations representative of the lifestyle? I did get insight into these things, and I will refer to it again when I am later ‘editing for atmosphere’.

But serendipity prevailed, and the best thing about Sam North’s book is the way he describes in such detail all the jobs his farmer character Jane has to do. In some places it almost reads as a list – well not exactly, but it reads a bit like my own ‘To-Do’ list, some of which I write as a ‘Did’ list, in a desperate attempt to give myself a feeling of accomplishment and progress. Jane has endless tasks that have to be performed, seasonal tasks repeated yearly, things breaking that need repair and unexpected crises to deal with. In between she stoically opens a tin of sardines, or eats a lump of cheese or a Mr Kipling Farmhouse cake.

The specificity of the detail is wonderfully entertaining, but it does more. It actually tells you how to do the things – or at least how the things are done. As a child I loved Swallows and Amazons for the sailing technique and camp craft, The Little House in the Big Woods for making maple syrup and butchering a pig and and My Side of the Mountain for tanning a hide and making a bed and mattress. When I began my novel I called it, with humour and inability to classify genre in equal measure, a ‘dystopian agricultural romance’. I wanted it to incorporate a ‘how to’ for things that Davey Kirk has to do living in his off-grid mountain shack, and for Rosa Retallack’s survival skills before she meets him. But my question to the market was: do adults want to read this stuff?

Well The Lie of the Land answers this for me, in the affirmative. Because it is exactly what made this book stand out.

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The Case for Dialect in Fiction

Say your novel is full of Scottish characters and has a Cornish protagonist.  The question is: do you depict dialogue, and if so in what way and to what extent?  Even devoutly following the ‘less is more’ advice, there are still decisions to be made about exactly where to pitch it on the dialect spectrum.

Dialect only in the imagination

Unless I am directed otherwise, I hear characters in my own accent. The problem with using no dialect at all is that you lose a useful tool . Dialect can:

  • Distinguish between individual characters
  • Distinguish between character, author and narrator
  • Establish atmosphere
  • Establish setting – or a character’s alienation in a setting
  • Establish time period
  • Indicate alien storyworld
  • Identify a character’s background geographically and socially
  • Hint at a character’s backstory

If I read a book about Scots, I want to hear Scots.  If they all apparently speak in English accents, I would be unconvinced and disappointed. In Find Me by J.S. Monroe the male protagonist is, we are told, Irish. Luckily his origin is not integral to the story,  because with the almost entire absence of dialect, I continually forgot this.

Rhythm, cadence and word choice as dialect

This is the approach often recommended to and by writers – see for example Cameron Michaels in his article Writing Dialect: It’s In The Rhythm.  The idea is to use local words, or to arrange them and punctuate in a way that makes dialect clear to the reader. In The Scottish Exiles use of the obvious words ‘lass’, ‘wee’ and ‘aye’ would be examples, as would ‘outwith’.

Alternative spelling as dialect

Regional word usage is not always enough without a key to its pronunciation. When Munroe’s Irishman interjects “Jaysus”, it has to be spelt this way or the reader would simply assume ‘Jesus’.  If Rosa my Cornish protagonist meets someone in the street, instead of ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’ she would say ‘Alright?’ But she wouldn’t pronounce it ‘all right’; she would say ‘A’right?’. The only alternative to spelling it in dialect would be for a third person narrator or another character to make reference to the pronunciation.  How contrived and cumbersome to say ‘”Alright?” said Rosa, dropping the L in a distinctly Cornish manner.’

“Five shillings mair,” said he, “and hersel’ will bring ye there” says a Scottish character to Robert Louis Stevenson’s David Balfour in Kidnapped.  At a glance you can tell who is speaking.

Written dialect might look a little odd, but as soon as you form the words in your head, you hear them.  Some people speak in accents when they quote someone or tell a story, and the story is instantly enlivened.  To actors it is an integral part of their job. Whether verbal or written, dialect needs to be done well and with precision, but we don’t question the principle of whether actors should speak ‘properly’ (i.e. standard English) instead of using dialect. The downside of writing dialect rather than speaking it is that you can never be sure how the reader will ‘hear’ it.

There are different types of alternative spelling.  These include elisions like the Scottish ‘hersel” or Rosa’s Cornish ‘a’right’, or contractions like the English ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’. There are what might be described as ‘mis-spellings for the sake of pronunciation’ like Stevenson’s ‘mair’ instead of ‘more’.  Each of these represents a choice that needs to be made by the writer of dialect.  Different words as dialect

Alternative spelling and pronunciation

The next stage on the dialect spectrum is where a word both pronounced and spelt differently, yet does not constitute an entirely different word.  An example would be ‘dinnae’ instead of ‘don’t’, which is include in the Oxford English Dictionary, or an archaic word such as ‘ye’ for ‘you’.  There are also choices within these alternative spellings: ‘dinnae’ or ‘dinna’?  ‘Ye’, ‘ya’ or an elided ‘y apostrophe’ as in the American ‘y’all’?  These words, used consistently but sparingly, can convey immediately the origin and identity of the character.

Incomprehensible dialect



Jennifer Sommer‘s thesis blogpost cites several novels with what she calls an ‘extreme level of dialect’.  Robert Burns is a good example of dialect that is so strong and broad that it is difficult for the English to understand.  While for the sake of our audience we may not wish to emulate Burns, I would still question whether it is  essential that the reader understands every single word. If there is an incomprehensible sentence or two by a particular character, does this matter – especially if the character would have been incomprehensible or difficult to understand if you heard them speak?  The alternative might be to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’: ‘Blah, blah,’ he said incomprehensibly.’ or  ‘I could not understand a word he said.’

In The Scottish Exiles, Davey Kirk is the Scot doing most of the speaking. He has minimal dialect, because he is a viewpoint character and too much would be too much. But when they meet other Scottish secondary characters a broader dialect makes a contrast. Deeper research and listening to audio material can help establish characters in a particular area, for example in Aberdeen they say ‘fae’ instead of ‘from’.

Narration in dialect

A step further on the dialect spectrum is where the narrator uses dialect. Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song is an example. He provides a glossary for terms that may not be understood. It is probable this will be used only by native speakers.  There are numerous modern examples of Scots dialect being written by Scots although there is a difference between informal banter between friends, and more formal writing in an identical accent. Contrast the language used by Lesley Riddoch in The National  with her own Facebook page where she announces she is going ‘aff tae bed’. This informal v formal use might usefully be compared with character v narration.

While Stevenson, Gibbon and Riddoch might use dialect, is there a level of cultural appropriation if a non-Scot writes in a Scots dialect? In OutlanderAmerican Diana Gabaldon’s uses character dialect words and also some Gaelic phrases. Evidently it did not affect adversely either publication or sales. However, to narrate in dialect might overstep cultural acceptability.

Dialect overlapping with language

In An Introduction to Modern Scots Andy Eagle lays out the history of the Scots language, and notes its effective diminution into ‘a dialect’.  Perhaps the answer to the dialect conundrum is to place the dialect words or phrases in italics, as latin might be. But the reason for this would surely be more academic than literary or practical. If the problem is the flow, or the reader’s understanding, use of italics is unlikely to help. As regards a writing device for delineating character or creating atmosphere, italics would simply get in the way.


Novel written entirely in another language

It may appear facetious to carry the idea to this extreme, but it bears at least a mention. To vast sections of the world, a book written in English is a book written in a foreign language. English is not somehow ‘neutral’. Is it simply our palate that desires a book to be written in an unsullied version of English? Should this be pandered to? I could potentially (had I the skill, the time, the knowledge, the dedication) write my novel in Gaelic, Scots, Doric – or a mixture of these, depending on each character’s origin. But my protagonist is English. There would need to be dual language at least. Then there is the narration to consider.  So it might be an interesting exercise, but it would plainly create difficulties both in craft and as regards publication in Britain or America. Effectively I would be an English writer translating into Scots, only for a translator to translate back into English. Let’s not go there.