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.



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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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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