Writing a Picture: how the themes & style of Susan Cooper and Kate Mosse have influenced my writing
During this course I have written both short stories and longer fiction, so my reading has been a mixture of the two. However, the authors I am repeatedly drawn to are Susan Cooper and Kate Mosse. Although ‘your writing voice is not necessarily your reading voice,’ (Mosse in McCrum, 2014) in this instance, the books I’ve enjoyed reading are very similar to the ones I like writing. There are many aspects to admire in both authors – the way they create detailed descriptions in a minimalist style, then switch to more maximalist writing without losing the authenticity of the narrative voice and how they manage the transitions between polyphonic 3rd person narratives without losing or confusing the reader, to name just two. It is a testament to their skill that when reading their books as a reader, rather than a writer, these transitions are so smooth they go almost unnoticed.
In this essay, I will primarily consider Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence and Mosse’s Languedoc Trilogy. The specific aspects I will discuss are themes, style - specifically with regard to language choice and setting.
My writing shares common themes and motifs with Cooper and Mosse. Although there may have been casualties along the way (both authors use the leitmotif of death and are happy to confront the reality that in a narrative that contains archetypal tropes such as ‘heroes’, ‘shadows’ and ‘shapeshifters’ there will always be an element of danger), ultimately, good always triumphs over evil. There is, if not a positive ending, then at least a sense of hope for one in the future, because ‘The dark is always rising, and the work of the greatest stories is to hold it back.’ (Macfarlane, 2019, p.xiii) In my own work, whilst there isn’t always a physical death, I often deal with death in other forms (e.g. the death of dreams or hopes, the ending of one way of life etc), but there is usually a sense that this ‘death’ will lead to a better future.
I admire Mosse’s writing because she drops hints throughout her books which seem insignificant at the time, but help to create moments of revelation later in the narrative. Both authors are also masters of foreshadowing events within and across books and I was in awe of the organisation and narrative forethought this showed, until I realised ideas grow from past work and the rest is good editing. Whilst working on the first draft of my EMA, I had ideas about references in one section that could act as a counterpoint to revelations in a later section. Similarly, I wanted to use the title She Who Makes Me Sin as a motif throughout the piece and needed to find ways to include elements of this throughout. This was the focus of my first edit and I inserted extra sentences to reference this theme. ‘Most nights now, she was my first port of call... Her voice began singing to me even before I’d left work…’ (Loten, 2020) is a personification of whiskey – it is ‘she’ who causes the sin. This additionally demonstrates the theme of (self) deception that runs through my narrative – a motif Cooper and Mosse also make great use of – their characters are consistently deceived by others and it is this deception that creates tension within the plot, particularly in Sepulchre, where the reader knows Léonie’s mysterious suitor is in reality the villain of the piece. We share her despair when she realises she is responsible for bringing about the death of her brother and sister-in-law and consequently, we also understand her resolve to sacrifice herself to ensure her nephew’s safety.
As Anderson (2006) acknowledges, we are often told to write what we know. Whilst my writing doesn’t always contain themes and situations I’m familiar with, narratives are generally set in locations I know. I’ve never considered before why this is the case, but having read an interview where Mosse said the hardest thing for her to write is ‘what I call the “glue” scenes where time needs to pass, and nothing much needs to happen’ (Metcalfe, 2008) I realised I have the same difficulty. It is in these ‘glue’ scenes that my familiarity with the locations comes to the fore and I am able to use that knowledge to ‘pad’ those scenes and make them not only interesting, but as realistic as possible. Similarly, just as Susan Cooper chose locations from her memories of childhood, many of my locations are throwbacks to my own younger years – areas I lived in or visited on holiday. ‘(L)andscapes are not merely one-dimensional backdrops, but are integral to the texts and to the narrative action that unfolds within them’ (Carroll, 2011, p.163) and it is the sublimely simple descriptions of these landscapes and locations that draw the reader in and fully submerses them into the worlds of Cooper and Mosse’s books.
This latter point highlights something that is of key importance in understanding and analysing the work of these writers. For both authors, landscapes and the history they have witnessed, play a vital role in both the plot and progression of their novels. Indeed, for Cooper, ‘landscape is not merely a background factor…but a vital and richly resonant setting’ (Carroll, 2011, p.9) while Mosse’s novels are ‘characterised by a strong sense of place’ (Metcalfe, 2008) and it is their poetic descriptions of these landscapes that have had the biggest impact on my writing. Whilst I am often not too concerned with physical descriptions of characters, preferring to leave that to the imagination of the reader, I believe in order for a narrative to really draw the reader in, they need a strong visual sense of the location, particularly where the landscape is central to the atmosphere, the plot or the characters themselves. In a current WIP, the central character has just arrived at university and I wanted to get across the idea that he feels completely out of place. Rather than focus directly on his feelings, I made this point through the contrast between his home and university cities. ‘Devon was pretty enough, I suppose, but held little appeal to…a city boy...The rolling landscape held no great attraction to one whose ideal view was the city of London from Tower Bridge; a sprawling cityscape where you were jostled impatiently…It was totally at odds with this area of the country and I felt the difference in my heart with a sudden longing for the hard pavements and grimy air of the capital. The fresh air here was suffocating…gone was the frenetic pace of life…a much calmer, quieter voice taking its place, reminding you to look around...’ (Loten, 2018)
Landscapes are hugely influential on the plot of the books I have studied and in many instances the landscape almost becomes a character in itself, so carefully is it described. Mosse’s intricate descriptions of southern France are ‘sometimes assumed to be travelogue writing [but are] actually a form of painstaking documentary realism.’ (Armitt, 2014) Cooper, writing from the USA, used her homesickness for Britain to capture the essence of locations remembered from her childhood and turn them into fictional locations so realistic that people have been known to go looking for the specific house she describes in Over Sea Under Stone. The house does exist, but not in Cornwall and the carefully described village it is located in (Trewissick) is equally fictional, being based loosely on Mevagissey.
It is this vividness and integration of landscape into plot, theme and character that I try to emulate in my own writing. I want my settings to be ‘not merely an unnoticed background to the text but…a powerful medium in the production of meaning and action,’ (Carroll, 2011, p.13) but to do this as successfully as Cooper and Mosse, I need to use precise vocabulary to convey the exact image I want, rather than relying on an abundance of adjectives. In feedback, I am often told to pare back the adjectives when I attempt to create this kind of written picture, whilst Mosse and Cooper have the ability to conjure beautiful images without becoming overly hypotactic. ‘The golden sunlight filtered down through the canopy of leaves, casting chequerboard patterns on the ground’ (Mosse, Sepulchre, Ch.23) only uses two adjectives, but gives the reader an incredibly strong sense of the scene, proving adjectives can become more powerful when used in a limited manner. The effect that this can have was shown in two examples from my short story Time and Tide. ‘I watch the ripples on the surface of the lake as they’re carried along by the soft spring breeze that whispers wistfully to the trees and I feel sorry for them’ (Loten, 2019a) is overly descriptive and lacking in rhythm, whilst the relatively simpler ‘The trees around the lake dance to the rhythm of the wind, bent and burdened by the weight of their cherry pink wigs’ (Loten, 2019a) was singled out for creating an effective picture.
Mosse also makes great use of The Rule of Three, in both short and elongated forms, to create visual pictures and evoke sensations in her reader. Writing of Alaïs in Labyrinth, Mosse (2005) writes, ‘(N)ausea overwhelmed her and she was violently sick. Wine, undigested bread, river water’ (Ch2). This combination provokes a sensory reaction in the reader – the fact that there are no conjunctions within the triplet gives the impression of the words flowing out in the same fashion as the contents of Alaïs’ stomach. By contrast, the elongated triplets in Sepulchre often create the impression of a moment suspended in time – a theme that runs throughout the book. ‘The refraction of light, the movement of air beneath the turn of the stone stair. The inescapable relationship between place and moment.’ (Mosse, 2007, Prelude) Swinging between parataxis and hypotaxis means that Mosse’s writing never becomes too elaborate, keeping the narrative grounded in reality. Nor does it ever become too sparse, removing the reader from the world Mosse is evoking.
However, Mosse talks about her ‘earlier novels show[ing] all the flaws of thinking you can manipulate yourself as a writer…I was trying…to write a book…I didn’t have the skill to do.’ (Mosse in Rustin, 2012) This is evident in this extract from her earliest book, Eskimo Kissing, where her use of language is less refined and precise than in her later books. ‘Still thinking, she vaguely dropped the orange and purple paper in the vicinity of the waste-paper basket squashed under her desk.’ (Mosse, 1996, p.84) For me, it is finding the balance between using the exact vocabulary needed and not ‘showing off’ to the reader. This first draft is an example of where I failed to do this. ‘[the] conversation languorously meandering around the room, mellifluous and fluid, washing over the semi-reclining figures, enveloping them in a soporific stupor of torpidity…’ (Loten, 2019b) I have to learn the same lesson as Mosse and avoid using an excess of language or over-extending metaphors in an attempt to ‘sound’ clever.
Cooper uses significantly more adjectives in OSUS when she writes, ‘He came out at the other side into a quiet lane, pitted with deep dry ruts hard as rock, lined with trees arching overhead in a thick-leaved roof,’ (1965, p.138) but each aspect of the sentence is carefully placed and losing any of the adjuncts would significantly weaken the power of the image. Cooper’s approach to punctuation also adds to the strength of ‘the lyrical poetry of [her] scene building’ (Mikkelsson, 1998, p.91) and Cooper herself has talked about the arguments with her editor about the effect her unusual approach to grammar has on her work, with the two of them removing and adding back in commas during the editing process. This is something I am particularly keen to continue working on, as recent feedback indicates that the lyricism of my writing is something to improve. (‘Consider the rhythm of your prose. Particularly important here as it’s the first line of your story.’ [Rhodes, TMA01 Feedback, 2019])
Another area where the precise use of language is so important to the writings of both authors is in their creation of psychic distance. Both use a shifting 3rd person POV to narrate their novels and this could distance the reader from the action. However, their use of distinctive syntax and style for each of their characters means that this distance is bridged. In Sepulchre, for example, the historical half of the novel is littered with French words from the main characters, ‘Chérie, don’t blush so’ (Mosse, 2007, Ch8) and these characters are distinguished from the Carcassonais by their speech, ‘This way, Madomaisèla, Sénher.’ (Mosse, 2007, Ch24). In the modern half, Meredith’s American roots are shown through the use of vocabulary specific to that country. ‘Her sneakers squeaked on the marble.’ (Mosse, 2007, Ch10) Writing in dialect is something I have so far not had the courage to attempt, but this approach to identifying place of origin is one which does not run the risk of turning the characters into stereotypes.
If there is an area of Cooper’s work that I would, if not criticise, then at least attempt not to emulate, it is that most of the main characters are male and certainly a large percentage of the action is centred around them. Jane Drew plays a pivotal role in Greenwitch; it is she who mistrusts the Withers siblings in OSUS and she who has contact with The Lady in Silver on The Tree, but apart from that she is limited to a supporting role and there are very few other female characters who present strong role models. For me, women are often at the heart of my narratives and even in my WIP where the main character is male, it is the women in his life who influence him and shape him into the man he becomes.
In the past, I have found it difficult to identify the correct genre (and therefore style) for my writing, as much of it does not fit neatly into one specific category. The complexity of the themes inherent within the work of Cooper and Mosse means that critics have often struggled with exactly where to place them in the literary world. Cooper is nominally a children’s author, but although her books are marketed as such, evidence such as reviews from Goodreads and the annual #TheDarkIsReading event suggests that ‘[t]hese are not books for children – they are books for people’ (Macfarlane, 2019, p.x) and Mosse ‘invented a new genre of fiction – sweeping historical stories that put women’s experiences firmly at their heart.’ (Finnegan, WH Smith, 2019). However, the books could just as easily be filed under supernatural, fantasy or (in Mosse’s case) gothic or feminism. In researching this essay it occurred to me that this is not necessarily something for the writer to be too concerned with – the main challenge is to write something people want to read, regardless of what pigeonhole it may be placed in. Good books will often have a universal appeal and in this regard, Mosse and Cooper are masters of their craft. Thus, in future, I will worry less about this and focus only on the story itself. As Mosse says, ‘My skill is storytelling, not literary fiction.’ (Mosse in McCrum, 2014)
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