Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Writers are Hunter-Gatherers

A lot of writers talk about the gathering stage of writing. This stage can involve reading around the literature which relates to your novel, reading books by writers you admire and books on a similar genre and theme.
The gathering stage is also the time for research.
 I've recently been researching the little ships which left Hayling Island for Dunkirk, for my novel, HIDDEN, coming out next year. This photo shows me on the bridge of Count Dracula, moored at a boatyard on Hayling, which went to Dunkirk, May 31st 1940. She rescued over 700 men.

The gathering stage of writing for me also involves a lot of thinking, perhaps not even taking notes, just thinking and thinking myself into my characters and situation until I come to the point where I am ready to write.

But recently it has occurred to me that there is a stage before the Gathering. That is the Hunter stage. History is a great passion of mine and I think that I would have been most at home at the end of the Ice-Age in the great days of the nomadic Hunter-Gatherers, who followed the herds of edible animals along the the edge of the Ice Sheet. Once they had tamed horses and could ride above the landscape their sense of freedom and engagement with their environment was probably the greatest in human history. It was also a time when I believe women would have had more freedom than later on when people settled in one place and were more easily controlled.

This is a close-up of the old flint beds in the chalk seams on Hayling. There were thriving Iron Age communities on the Island and a very important salt industry which eventually attracted the attention of the Romans.

If I had lived at that time I would have been a healer, studying the plants for medical properties. My mother was a nurse in the Navy in the Second World War and she taught me a lot about managing illness.
I think I would also have been an artist, painting my stories on animal skins and carving beads for jewellery.

And yes, all this is very fanciful, but then isn't that exactly the characteristic a writer needs? Here I am, living in 2010, in an equally rich and challenging environment and my calling is to be a writer of fiction and poetry.As I have been writing since childhood, my antennae are always up. I am always hunting through my world, for stories and words, landscapes and images and once I have settled on a new project - poem, short story, novel - only then does the gathering stage begin.

This is the stage of greatest focus. If I simply continue to hunt I will have a notebook full of What ifs? and no finished product. There is always another great story out there waiting to be written and my antennae are so sensitive, I see possible stories and poems everyday. But I have to take control, decide on my focus and start the long task of gathering before I begin the momentous work of actually writing and crafting my idea.

How do you hunt and gather? Share your ideas with us.


  1. I used a spend a lot of the time hunting - writing down ideas, funny names and titles, overheard dialogue. I put it all in a card file and flicked through it, but this was all avoidance behaviour - I flitted from project to project, rarely settling in to complete anything.
    What changed everything for me was the decision to commit to a single key project for as long as it took to complete. I worried about what would happen to all the other ideas, but after a while I found I was able to turn that hunting/brainstorming instinct on and off when I needed to.
    So maybe I'm not the ideal hunter type - I guess I'd probably make a better farmer!

  2. I do totally resonate with this. I often spot possible 'prey' and spend ages stalking it, observing its habits, etc, before I start the actual hunting bit. The hunting takes quite a lot of time, too, and can frequently feel quite hazardous. Then the gathering bit fits for the things one just happens on, not to mention the frequent trips out to the garden while I'm working, at present,with a lot of berries out there, there's better grazing than in the fridge!! I guess the rewriting counts as refining the hunting techniques. I think you've made a very important point about the way in which quite primeval things are embedded in our psyches and translate into current-day 'modern' activities. Though story-telling is a hunter-gatherer thing too, isn't it? I loved the photo of the chalk beds.

  3. Nick, I think you are probably all three and I know what you mean by making that commitment and trusting that you have made the right decision.

    Lesley,Yes, hunter-gatherers were definitely storytellers. Glad you liked the chalk beds, they go right out to sea and sparkle under the water when the sun is out.

  4. I feel more like an archaeologist - there are bits to excavate, arrange and make sense of. Thy are out there and I have to find them - they may have been scattered by the sea, confused or broken - but they have some sort of structure.

  5. I'm definitely a gatherer. I have to do a lot of thinking during my writing process. I sometimes even do it in the middle of the night. It keeps horrid thoughts at bay and lulls me back to sleep.

    History is my passion too but really, Miriam, the Ice-Age!?! I don't think so! There'd be no cafes for you to sit and write in and as for your laptop... I rest my case.

    I love the photo of your mother, by the way. She looks so competent and serene.

  6. I like the archaeologist image KM and you're right, Ros, no coffee bars, but imagine all those beautiful unpolluted streams we could sit beside. Although life without my laptop : hmm, now there's a thought. You're description of my Mum in that photo is spot on. Being a nurse was all she ever wanted and she was very good at it.

  7. I think I am a forager! But you have inspired me to be a little more organised in my hunting and gathering for the next book. Fantastic photos btw - specially of your mum.

  8. Interesting! This is the first post I've read on your blog Miriam. The same day we met briefly in London I had started my first Thursday class of the year with Foundation students. I suggested they go hunter gathering - if they haven't done so already. They need raw material, a kind of vocabulary to combine into something of value. Real material, with art students - fabric, or bits of paper or postcards of picture they like or they take photos... (One told me she liked gathering words in her box too. Perhaps she'll be an author-illustrator?). A collection tells you about yourself, how distinct you sensibility is from anyone else's. But yes the real struggle is indeed ordering the stuff you gather. Finding the structure for it. Making sense - art or story - out of it. I know what you mean about focus!

  9. That's great Bridget - interesting that we both quite separately came to use the same concept. Let me know if you develop this idea any further. I'll try it out my workshop writers too and let you know their response.


Looking forward to reading your comment.