The Write Stuff: Method Writing

By David Flin

There is a famous anecdote regarding the actors Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. They were on a film together, and Hoffman was playing the part of a history graduate in Marathon Man. Hoffman was famous for his ‘method acting’, immersing himself in the role of the character he was playing. Literally, in this case, as he prepared himself for a scene in which there is an attempt to drown him by having stage hands hold his head underwater for longer and longer periods while he tried to fight them off. At one point, he went three days without sleep to get into the role, and when Olivier saw his battered and weary co-star, and said: “Why don’t you just try acting. It’s much easier.”

This highlights the difference between “method acting” and “classical acting.” There’s a similar divergence in styles of writing. Some people have a single style, one that they are familiar with, and they do not stray from it. If you open a John le Carre spy novel, you can be pretty sure of what you’re going to get.

Some writers make no pretence of immersing themselves in the feel of a period, and simply use a modern style and modern attitudes and apply them to a historical setting.

And some writers use Method Writing, where they immerse themselves in the feel of a setting. There are countless techniques you can use to help in this. The best, by far, is to read as many memoirs of people from the time as possible. You can pick up the attitudes and the rhythms of speech in this way. For example, during WWI, there was, surprisingly enough, a shortage of junior officers for the meatgrinder in the trenches. To resolve this, many “Temporary Gentlemen”, TGs, were appointed, officers promoted from the ranks. Regular officers understood and accepted this as part and parcel of the way things were. The huge number of new officers, many straight from public schools, weren’t so accepting of the concept of that class of person being an officer, and felt that these Temporary Gentlemen would “inevitably let the side down.”

Once you look into the memoirs, you start finding many different attitudes, all of which give a strong feel for the setting and the various clashes. One pre-war Regular officer said of TGs: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but you can make a good leather one.”

Getting the attitudes and speech patterns right is important if you want to convince the readers. I’ve seen too much second-rate historical fiction that uses modern speech patterns and imposes modern attitudes where it just isn’t appropriate.

I’ve seen things I can’t believe: Confederate slave-owning generals proclaiming the courage and bravery of the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry; Roman private investigators searching for fingerprints at the scene of a crime; casual acceptance of friendships between different classes in Edwardian England.

It’s so unnecessary. It blows away suspension of disbelief, and, for the author, it must be incredibly unsatisfying. If you’re going to write what are essentially modern characters, put them in a modern setting. If you’re going to write about a historical setting, make the setting historical.

Like Dustin Hoffman’s method acting, it’s important to immerse yourself in the setting you’re writing about.

There’s one little trick that a few authors adopt, and that is what can be called method writing. Before writing, they get into character. Not one of the characters from the story, although that can work for introspective pieces. They invent a persona suitable for writing in a particular genre or era, and adopt that when starting to write.

To take a not very random example, a writer of romantic fiction of my acquaintance, before starting to write about the story of when “An unexpected knock at the door turns reclusive billionaire Patrick Fitzwilliam’s life upside down. He had closed himself off from the world after a family tragedy, but his new neighbour Melanie Hardy needs help, and Patrick finds he can’t say no,” consciously thinks himself into the role of someone who might write like that.

It’s play-acting, of a sort, but it gets me, sorry, it gets this particular author who is definitely not me, into the right frame of mind. It doesn’t help with characterisation of the personalities in the story, but it is remarkably helpful for getting into the feel of the story. I’ve no way of knowing whether it’s a technique that would work for anyone else, but this particular author finds it a useful little trick. After all, if you’re trying to create a convincing world, you need to be convinced by it. You also need to have a way of getting into the right frame of mind.

In some cases, it can be easy. For example, you just need to say the word: “Yomping”, and I can instantly start talking about heavily-laden troops struggling through a peat bog, sinking to their ankles with every step, rain that’s half-rain, half-snow constantly blowing in their face, a wind biting through to their bones, cold and wet and grumbling and far from home; knowing that there’ll be no warmth at the end of the march, just a cold, fitful rest and then more plodding on, legs exhausted, muscles aching, and a constant stream of complaints.

It could be a Roman patrol on Hadrian’s Wall; it could be German infantry during a winter on the Eastern Front; it could be Australians moving up into the line for an attack in the winter in the trenches of WWI. Whichever it is, it’s a feeling I can draw on easily. To be fair, when I write like that, my feet start hurting, and my shoulders start to ache, and I start grumbling over every little thing, but I can be confident that I’ve got the mood just right.

That’s method writing.

“Why don’t you just try writing, dear boy. It’s so much easier.”

I guess I'm more of a Hoffman than an Olivier.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow