Whose Story is it Anyway? How to Handle Multiple Narrators
‘Whose story is it?’ – I can still picture my first ever writing teacher insisting on an answer to this vital question. After all, when it comes to writing a novel, the identity of the narrator(s) will determine the voice in which the story is told and very often the shape of the whole book. As our class thrashed around in our first attempts at extended fiction, I think her point was to dissuade us from using multiple narrators when one might give the book a clearer focus and direction.
The identity of the narror shapes the voice of the book
Her ‘rule’ has stayed with me. The novel I wrote back then (the story of a man and a woman in middle age whose youthful affair comes back to haunt them) had two narrative voices (some acclaim though no publisher in the end) while my second, A Kettle of Fish (Thornberry, 2012) was written in only one voice and in first person throughout, which felt right for a lively coming of age story. However when it came to my latest book, I found the question easy to answer but absurdly hard to execute.
I had no doubt as to who was my hero. Edinburgh artist and photographer D.O. Hill (1802-1870) is known mainly for his part in the history of photography, but to me his story encompassed more than his famous partnership with Robert Adamson. I was particularly intrigued by the romantic proposition of a handsome and charismatic widower who had many women friends yet remained unmarried for most of his life. Hill was the lynchpin, but I would write (I thought) the woman’s story.
But which woman? All the contenders (a mysterious assistant, an outspoken blue-stocking, a fellow artist in the making) had plenty to offer and their combined presence offered the potential for conflict and jealousy. I wrote a first draft in several voices in the hope that the final choice would emerge. But it failed to do so, and the more I discovered about the history, the less I felt like concocting rivalries or arguments which probably never took place. All of these women had a genuine affection for this man but maybe not in the way I had imagined.
And so I gave up and laid the whole thing aside, until out of nowhere (with the motivation of a short story competition) I put together 2000 words inspired by a single Hill & Adamson image; a woman (you can see her here) of whom I knew nothing other than her moment in front of the camera. Silver Harvest was about the effect on her of that historic moment. I liked the story and it did well. A few months later I presented a mini collection of similar stories - inspired by half a dozen Hill & Adamson calotype images – at the St Andrews Photography Festival in 2016.
As sometimes happens with writing projects, I had let it go but it hadn’t let go of me.
As sometimes happens with writing projects, I had let it go but it hadn’t let go of me. I realised I could tell Hill’s story through a series of, literally, snapshots – his life as seen by the people who had lived, talked or worked with him. Some of these people recur in my version of his story. Others leave only a fleeting impression. But all of them play a part in this composite picture of the man I wanted to portray.
By mid 2017 I had a 30,000 word collection of linked short stories. It took only a little more work to thread them together into a novel with an overarching narrative which is told in 10 voices. My hero, D.O. Hill, bears the narrative in only one chapter.
Does it work? In the Blink of an Eye is not a conventional novel but I think there is a particular satisfaction for a reader in being presented with discrete episodes and seeing how they link together in the end. I was satisfied with the finished article and was hugely gratified when Linen Press felt the same. So far reviews have been encouraging with a common reaction being, when I got to the end I wanted to read it all over again. I think that’s a good thing!
If you’re in or around Edinburgh, In the Blink of an Eye is having its Scottish launch in at Blackwells South Bridge on 17 October 17 at 18:00. Everyone is welcome, please register here in advance if you can or find the book at Linen Press.