Writing lessons from Charles Dickens

Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank
Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank

The first draft of a story is just the raw material, right? It will need to be revised, reworked, perhaps even radically overhauled, word by word, plot hole by plot hole. This is the fall back that makes writing a slightly less daunting endeavour. Thankfully everything you put down can later be improved, reordered or deleted.

That is the stage I am at now, trying to enhance my novel to the best of my abilities – and there’s a lot more work to do. But once in a while, a writer of genius come along who breaks all the rules, someone like the giant of 19th century English fiction Charles Dickens.

Last year being the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth there was a lot of Dickens talk and I happened to hear a radio discussion about the great writer in which one of the experts named Our Mutual Friend as the author’s best book. It had been years since I’d picked up a Dickens novel but he’s always been close to my heart. My grandmother, who shared my childhood home, was a lifelong Dickens fan and was always willing to read to us.

So I got my hands on a copy and tackled the near 800-page opus. At the back I was delighted to discover Dickens’ plot plans and notes included. It’s a fascinating insight into his working method and brain. He had worked out (monthly) number by number how the action would unfold, weaving all the storylines together and leading his characters on a merry dance through to conclusion.

Courtesy of Claire Tomalin’s suberb biography – Charles Dickens A Life – which I’m currently reading, I have discovered a lot more about Dickens. From the very beginning Dickens did not have the luxury of letting his stories evolve organically as they were serialised in monthly or weekly issues. Tomlin quotes Dickens as saying: “My friends told me it was a low cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes”. He triumphantly proved them wrong.

For ten months in 1837 two of his serial stories, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, ran simultaneously. Dickens was producing the chapters for two different publishers and coordinating with two illustrators – an incredible juggling act, on top of which he was also editing and contributing to a monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany.

“Managing this double feat was an unprecedented and amazing achievement. Everything had to be planned in his head in advance. Pickwick had started as a series of loosely rambling episodes, but he was now introducing plot … and Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start. There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right the first time. … Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as well as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time.”

Just four years earlier, aged 21, his first piece of non-journalistic writing was published – a ‘sketch’ or short story, published anonymously and for no fee in a very small circulation magazine called the Monthly. He remembered dropped in his offering “stealthily one evening at twilight” after the place had closed. The sketch was followed by many more and led to fame within months and a 30-year stellar career.

We cannot watch fly-on-the-wall documentaries about life in Victorian England but we do have Dickens, who transposed so many of the characters and everyday scenes around him into his work. The people loved him for his crusade against the appalling social injustice of the day and we still have the privilege of learning from the great master of storytelling.

Growing up with books

Every writer starts out as a reader. If I cast my mind back to my childhood, books were a central feature of our lives. The greatest influence came from my paternal grandmother who lived with us growing up. She was a remarkable woman. Born in her father’s brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1911, she had a small but fantastic library of books. Nanny, as we called her, trained as a Montessori teacher in London in the 1930s and later worked as a governess. She had a wonderful way with children. She introduced us to her favourite authors over the years and one of my sweetest memories is of sitting wedged into the armchair beside her as she read aloud.

There was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome about a family of kids living in the English Lake District and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell describing his years living on the island of Corfu. Nanny was crazy about Dickens and read through Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Dombey & Son, Nicholas Nickleby and  A Christmas Carol for us. She had a beautifully illustrated edition of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

The more girl-oriented stories included The Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables were in there too as was the fantasy novel The Midnight Folk by John Masefield.

Stories featuring animals began with the Beatrix Potter series, moving on to Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

My own favourite children’s book of all time is The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann, the story of a group of animals forced to flee when their forest is destroyed. Tom McCaughren’s Run Swift, Run Free series also featured foxes’ adventures. The list goes on and the great thing is I now have the pleasure of starting all over again with my own children.