Our dog Tilly may look like a Jack Russell Terrier, but she thinks she’s a cat. She walks like a cat, she preens like a cat and, oh, yes, she climbs trees. This is her, 15 feet up an apple tree in our back garden.
She went up after a ball, or possibly a bird, and then stopped. She knew, and we knew, she was in trouble, but being a cat/dog she wasn’t going to admit it. She simply pretended to admire the view while we earthbound humans descended into chaos.
‘Oh my god, mum, she could die! She could like, fall on the ground and get totally squished.’ (daughter)
‘If she stays up there tonight, will we have to put her bed up there? (youngest son)
‘WTF? I was asleep, you know…It’s not even lunchtime.’(eldest son)
‘Get the step ladders!’ Get a sausage! Tilly! Come down now!’ (me)
But she was deaf to all our pleas. Eldest son, who’s over 6ft tall, balanced precariously on top of some step ladders and tried to get hold of her. But cat-like, she just looked at him with disdain, stepped out of his hands and climbed higher.
And then as we stood on the lawn, helplessly wheedling and brandishing bits of sausage, she balanced her haunches and leapt into the blue.
I have to say, I put my hands over my face. When I looked I expected to see a cartoon dead dog. But no, there she was trotting cockily off up the garden, pretending that nothing had happened. As we stared in silence, she leapt lightly on to the garden bench and and then arranged herself regally, waiting to grant us an audience and get some sausage. Because that’s what catdogs do, isn’t it?
I’ve gasped with awe at the Himalayas and the Rockies, I’ve sat on palm fringed beaches in the Caribbean and on deserted islands in China. But, for just a couple of weeks, while the blossom is out, and the trees and the hedgerows are freshly green, and the ducks down on the canal have nine thimble-sized ducklings trailing haphazardly after them, there is no lovelier place in the world than the British countryside.
And what do you do in the midst of such loveliness? You go to a bank holiday car boot sale, of course.
I blame the Americans. (Careful, Ed) They invented the idea of boot sales, although I don’t think they call them that, but they have now become a truly British institution. Once, at this time of year, we used to be happy to go to a fete, watch our kids dance round a maypole, and chuck a wet sponge at the vicar. Now, it seems, all we want to do is take our tat to a field, sell it and come home with other people’s tat. Napoleon was right. We are truly a nation of shopkeepers.
So we went, myself, husband, son and daughter, each with our secret little hopes for a bargain, to the biggest boot sale around, in the parkland of Overstone Manor, deep in Northamptonshire. You could look one way and there was a sea of cars and people selling everything from toasting forks to deck chairs. But, look the other and there was an empty grass track curling down to an ancient stone bridge and then continuing up to the house, drowsing in the sunshine. Eat your heart out, Downton Abbey.
The house is Victorian, built in 1864, and is now a girl’s school, but there has been a manor there since, well, since forever, probably. The first mention of it seems to be in the 11th century when, according to British History Online, Maud the daughter and heir of Niel Mundeville married Ruallon d’Avranches. The history of the manor is long, and peppered with bizarre sentences such as, ‘in 1365 one Edmund de Morteyn claimed that his greatgrandmother Constance was seised of the manor in the reign of Edward I, but his pretensions were without foundation’ or ‘Walter le Mazun complained that she had unjustly ejected him from 1 virgate of land’. Suffice to say (here, I’m doing it, now) Henry VII’s grandad owned it at one point, and God knows what he would have done if he’d seen 2,000 serfs milling about in his parkland eating chips and buying second hand George Foreman fat-busting grills.
So there we were, wandering in the park among the knick knacks, listening in, willy nilly, on other people’s conversations.
Last time I saw you, I was on a horse. Or was it you that was on a horse?
I said to him, I said, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ and he said a painting. So he came home and I bought him two.
I’m having the baby in August and my boyfriend’s going to come and see me every Wednesday.
And when we had finished we sat on plastic chairs by the tea wagon and shared a plate of chips. (With mayonnaise, natch, because even in the country we know all about café society.)
‘Oh, God, mum, not more kitsch,’ moaned my daughter, when I presented my haul of five Devonware egg cups, two embroideries, a teaspoon from Aberystwyth and two pots of parsley.
Why is parsley kitsch?
Son had bought two box sets of DVDS, containing the entire series of Lost, and a broken BB gun. ‘There was this enormous hunting knife, too,’ he said rather despondently. ‘But dad wouldn’t let me have it.’
‘That’s because we don’t want to spend this afternoon in A&E,’ I explained, heaping mental brownie points on husband’s head.
‘Also, it was a rubbish knife,’ said husband, immediately being seised of said brownie points.
Daughter laid out heaps of clothes. ‘Look,’ she sighed. ‘A real Moschino belt. And it only cost 50p.’
Some of my students asked for a special class on showing and telling. So I thought I’d look it up on Google and see what other authors and experts thought. Confusing, or what?
Some experts I’ve read on the web seem to think that telling is simply not giving enough detail – as in, ‘Mr Wolf was enormous.’ And they say that showing is all about giving better description, such as, ‘Mr Wolf was as big as a tiger; he had yellow pointy teeth and a patch over one eye.’
But I think showing is also about describing a situation through a character’s feelings. So, instead of, ‘The burglar lifted a knife, and she could feel the adrenalin rushing through her body,’ you could write, ‘The burglar lifted a knife and she breathed in quickly, her heart thudding, as she tensed to jump.’
The advantage of telling is that you can pack an enormous amount of information into a very short space. But you have to be careful that you don’t turn your text into a list of occurrences, like some kind of random, fictional cv.
She had moved into the house in April 1988. She had steamed off the wallpaper in the back bedroom three years later, and then painted the hallway in 1994 while training as a careers advisor. Today she was meeting Brian, her latest speed-dating conquest. Previously she had gone out with George a chartered accountant, and Harry a landscape gardener from Cumbernauld.
Remember, stick to the point. Keep the bits in that are relevant to her character, but junk poor old Harry, unless, of course, she’s murdered him, put him in a cupboard in the back bedroom and wallpapered over him.
Showing can really bring you into a character’s skin. But it can also slow down the action. Like this:
The bomb went off and he ran to the house. It was all in darkness. There was a ‘for sale’ sign stuck in the hedge, and he could make out two garden gnomes by the front door. This was a faded blue and needed repainting. ‘Help,’ he shouted. ‘Help’.
If I had limited myself to just telling and a tiny bit of showing, I would have kept the urgency and the interest:
The bomb went off and he ran to the house. It was all in darkness. ‘Help,’ he shouted. ‘Help’.
So, my rules of showing and telling are these:
All showing, or all telling is boring.
If you are describing action, use mostly short, telling sentences, with maybe one showing sentence.
If your characters have more time, or you want to crank up the tension, use a short ‘telling’ sentence, and then expand it with showing, like this:
It was cold in the hut. He had just put the branches together in a hurry, and there were gaps big enough for him to put his trotter through. Thin flecks of ice were forming on his little curly tail, and his legs were turning a blotchy blue. He was trembling uncontrollably. But it wasn’t because of the cold. It was because Mr Wolf was loping up his driveway.
Excerpt taken from Princess Rose, by Elaine Canham and Rose Canham, in (Waters, F. ed.) Don’t Kiss The Frog, (2008) Kingfisher, Basingstoke and Oxford.
Have you noticed how everything that makes life more difficult these days, is apparently for our convenience? My son’s school has a new canteen. It is proud to be ‘nutritionally compliant’ (whatever that means) but it also no longer accepts cash. This means I can’t dig about under the sofa cushions for spare change for him to buy an extra something at lunchtime. I have to go online and top up a card. Tah! But, hey, it’s for my convenience.
Telephone answering systems. If you want to pay a bill, press one, talk about a mortgage press two, manicure a gerbil, press three. So you press one, two or three, and then you have some clever clogs computer simulation of a bloke from Bolton speaking to you as if you have the mental age of three, and ignoring everything you tell him. ‘I’m sorry,’ he keeps repeating. ‘I didn’t quite catch that. Did you say you wanted to pay £2 million?’ In 20 minutes of mounting frustration I never have to speak to a human being at all. All for my convenience, mind.
We’re so busy trying to make machines work, that we forget who they’re supposed to be working for. Yes, that’s right; us.
Parking meters. In my town, they don’t take cards. They take change, but they don’t give it. It is odds on that when you have posted the entire contents of your purse, they will reject the last coin. And then (after the machine either refuses to return what you’ve already put in, or spews it out like a jackpot win at Las Vegas) when you go off to get change, some traffic warden books you for not having paid and displayed. (Mind you, it’s a bloody miracle if you do get change. Most shops, mindful of their customers’ convenience, don’t give it.)
Trains. Oh, stop me now, Beulah. Railway stations are plastered with posters of smiling families having a great day out by train. Maybe they’re happy because they’ve been nutritionally compliant. Who knows? But we all know that day will end in tears, because, if you examine the timetable with an electron microscope you will see that by the time the poor saps want to go home the trains will have stopped running, and they will have to wait at Clapham Junction, or Crewe, until 6.30 am the next day (but not on a second Sunday in the month) to get their train.
I have been on trains that have stopped at stations where people are allowed to get off, but not get on. I have been on trains that have stopped at stations, and have been told I can’t get on or off because they are not ‘a stopping service’. And then there was the occasion (actually it happens quite a lot) when they gave up running trains altogether from my station and put on a replacement bus service. (Ok, that is for my convenience). However, this particular day the bus arrived at the connecting railway station two minutes after the train left. And you know what? The inspector was amazed that I should query this. ‘We can’t wait for passengers,’ he said. ‘It would mess the timetable up.’