Domestic Bliss

How to write your first novel, according to experts.

Help! Small scenes - advice needed

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Paul Whybrow

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Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
It's easier to write about discord than harmony, of dysfunctional families than those who get on well, in the same way as villains are more fun to create than do-gooder heroes, full of moral rectitude.

In creating the fifth novel in my Cornish Detective series, I fretted a little bit about writing a sex scene for my widowed protagonist detective, not out of embarrassment, more unsure about how to incorporate love and lust into a crime story heavy on mercilessness and gore. It was easier to write than I thought, possibly because these fictional characters have occupied my mind for six years.

I'm now looking ahead to Book 6, pondering how to portray my hero's new state of contentment at being in a nurturing relationship. It took him a while to find ways to cope with missing the love of his life, who was killed in a freak road accident, but he's adapted to singledom by his love of motorcycling, painting, wild gardening and wild swimming and learning to play the guitar.

As a detective, he's an eccentric Bohemian, unlike the normal drunken, gambling, womanising loose cannon that lurch through many crime novels. He's known his new female partner for a long time, meeting her as a witness in Book 1, which was set in 2012, but their communication has been by email and Skype, as she'd returned to America, so they still have a lot to learn about one another. Initially, she'll keep her distance, living in a cottage two miles away. At the moment, I'm unsure about them sharing a home, or getting married...or even me bumping her off! :mad:

I've been trying to think of stories in which domestic bliss is well written. The first characters who came to mind, were subterranean dwellers—Mole, Otter, Ratty and Badger in The Wind In the Willows. Then, the Hobbits, who are mutually supportive on their journey, talking often of their village Hobbiton, which is an idyllic place.

While pondering this, I came across an announcement that, in 2015, Seamus Heaney's poem 'When All The Others Were Away At Mass' was chosen as the favourite Irish poem of the previous century.

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives-
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


Seamus Heaney

A simple scene that transcends what's actually described, showing the intimacy of the couple sharing a domestic chore.

It reminded me, somewhat, of Barbara Kingsolver's non-fiction journal of her family's attempt to eat only locally grown food for an entire year, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Reading it made me salivate, sad that I don't have the land to cultivate, and admiring how she and her family pull together to harvest, preserve, market and cook what they grow. It's a great portrayal of the unity and harmony that living off the land engenders. @robinneweiss you'd love it!

Living with an awareness of the land and wildlife, surrounded by a slightly loopy family, can be found in My Family & Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

In modern literary fiction, it's hard to think of stories that depict joyful families, let alone those which allow a happy ending. Authors appear to feel compelled to dump a stinking dollop of gloom on their characters, just before they type The End. Certainly, with the complexity of life, not everything works out for the best, and someone has to describe the disappointments, the darkness and bleakness, though that's a poor way of encouraging people to read.

As I said before, it's simply easier to write about nasty things....the ink flows quicker, burning messages into readers' souls. French writer Henry de Montherlant summed up the problem of writing about happiness:

"Happiness writes in white ink on white pages."

Have you written any stories or poems, for whatever age of reader, featuring a happy family?

Can you think of any novels that describe domestic bliss in a believable way?

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Yes, I loved Animal Vegetable Miracle! My only dismay was that I had been planning a similar book when I read hers and, of course, she did it so beautifully I had to scrap my project. I'd forever compare mine to hers, and it would never stack up!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce depicts domestic bliss in a believable way. I'm sure the story doesn't appeal to the younger set, because domestic bliss doesn't involve sex for the ageing protagonists, but rather a constancy of support and affection through tragedy and mental illness. It's a beautiful story, and a lovely portrayal of the bumbling way we humans live and love one another, and how we might just get it right in the end.
 
Have you written any stories or poems, for whatever age of reader, featuring a happy family?

No, I haven't.

Can you think of any novels that describe domestic bliss in a believable way?

At first I was going to say no but then I realized some of my favorite novels are about a group of people who end up being 'like' family--sometimes even calling themselves family. I enjoy novels that redefine the notion of family.
 
Yes, I loved Animal Vegetable Miracle! My only dismay was that I had been planning a similar book when I read hers and, of course, she did it so beautifully I had to scrap my project. I'd forever compare mine to hers, and it would never stack up!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce depicts domestic bliss in a believable way. I'm sure the story doesn't appeal to the younger set, because domestic bliss doesn't involve sex for the ageing protagonists, but rather a constancy of support and affection through tragedy and mental illness. It's a beautiful story, and a lovely portrayal of the bumbling way we humans live and love one another, and how we might just get it right in the end.

I'm halfway through reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was a happy 3 for £1 find in my local charity shop—along with a Rose Tremain and Isabel Allende. I'm enjoying Rachel Joyce's writing, though I felt trepidation in the first few chapters, where she sets up several foreshadowing incidents, which felt like her loading one of the those children's pump-action bazookas with balls of sadness, that I know she's going to fire at the reader sometime, but I'm not sure when! :confused:
 
Have you written any stories or poems, for whatever age of reader, featuring a happy family?
No, I haven't. And I'm not so sure I ever will. Partly because I don't believe in 'happy family' as such. I don't mean to sound pessimistic here, or anything, but I believe that conflict exists in even the most harmonious families to some degree. It's just a question of perspective, of forgiveness, of dwelling on it, or letting it go. I believe that writing / reading about conflict helps us solve our own.

Maybe it depends on the definition of bliss, like Robinne mentions above, about depicting bliss in a believable way; i.e. it can be found in the portrayal of the way humans live and love eachother through hard times. Having said that, to me, a family living through hard times will never be a book of domestic bliss, even if the characters deal with it in a supportive and loving way. But maybe live has turned me negative.

Personally, I avoid bliss in my stories. For me, reading, and writing, is a way to look at / deal with difficult things in life; to get a different angle to a problem, problem solve, quantify my own troubles. I hope that my stories hold something a reader can take away from to help them in some way. Not in an obvious lecturing way, of course, but just a nugget here and there, or a moment of recognition, a connection. Kinda: 'hey, I understand that. I feel that too'. If we write about bliss, what do we have other than a dream of how it could be? To me, bliss is the end goal in a story, not the actual journey, because a happy ending is what many people seek and struggle to find.

Also, if the story is blissful, the reader has to 'work less', and use less empathy. If something goes wrong for someone, we feel empathy. Empathy taps into a human need to help others. Utopia doesn't need 'our help', hence doesn't need for us to read about it. (not sure this makes any sense)

As I said before, it's simply easier to write about nasty things....
Is it really simpler, or is it a case of 'whatever bothers us, is at the foreground of our thinking'? Excluding the people who do it for effect, but isn't this writing business of ours a way of seeking answers to our own questions and coming to terms with them? We don't question good things, meaning we don't need to debate it on the page ... Just a thought, which very possibly is completely is wrong.

Paul, I can't help but notice that some of the blissful stories you mention, feature animals. Not sure what that means in the greater scheme of things.

I wonder if we tend to seek out stories about discord for a therapeutic reasons? When I look at my book list, the books I own reflect something that was going on in my life at the time I bought it. A theme, a feel, a person.

In modern literary fiction, it's hard to think of stories that depict joyful families, let alone those which allow a happy ending.
Could that be because the Zeitgeist is different? A lot of people feel jaded and frustrated. High divorce rates. People working long hours. The pressures to be a certain person etc. To top it all, these days, there is a lot more negativity in the world. The 24 hrs news channels spread the words of disasters. Books, and art in general, help deal with it. Isn't art the reflection of the times? Hasn't the theatre historically reflected the psyche of the times?

Here's a philosophical question for a sunny Friday: Does bliss even exist? If anyone finds it, can you send me some, please? Ta. ;)
 
I saw a close frenemy seriously consider abandoning her young child for a man in whom she saw nothing more than ‘the appeal of the void’. He wasn’t really a void – he was just good at physics


Hahahaaaa.... @Kirsten. I love it. Maybe not so funny in real life...but that's hilarious.
 
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How to write your first novel, according to experts.

Help! Small scenes - advice needed

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