People Watching, Mulling and Writing in a Dark Room

Posted on 08/04/2013
By Commonwealth Foundation

I’m often asked how I got the idea for Sunflowers behind a Dirty Fence. The big rocks that pulled everything together are easy to name.

First, I wanted to write a story for Muthoni Muteru (Noni) and be the best auntie… ever. Noni is now two, charming, and adept at wielding that charm; her parents are two of the best people I know. And second, there was a garden with sunflowers behind a dirty fence near my house which gave the title to my play. When I have a title I know I’m ready to actually start writing. However, while these two were important, they happened towards the end of my process which always begins with my favourite pastime – people watching.

I find people interesting especially when the situation seems unusual in any way. I then tell myself an elaborate back story to what I’m currently observing. I also enjoy communal conversations in queues, public transportation, at bus stops, or in crowds around a newspaper vendor – not only for the topic being discussed, but for turns of phrase, for conflict. Sometimes these incidents become nothing but stories I tell when I get home, sometimes they ferment and become more.
Once, I was waiting to cross the road when I heard a rickety produce truck bang and clang itself round the corner. The driver’s jovial face immediately fell as we both watched a traffic policeman step into the road his palm and forearm up like a wall. A curt motion to the side brought the track to a stop by the side of the road. The policeman took a leisurely stroll round the truck, clipboard in hand as the worried driver followed the policeman’s progress furtively through his side mirrors. Terse words at the driver’s window turned into the laughter of old friends. The truck started up and with a relieved “Yes Officer” the driver rattled off. That’s when I noticed the policeman’s face. It lacked the beady lechery thinly veiled by officialdom that I have come to associate with traffic policemen. He wasn’t young yet his face was open, his eyes direct, his answering smile congenial, could he be a good guy… honest? The justification for police corruption has been the pittance policemen are paid, their poor living conditions, which, by casual observation one would not be able to argue against. What sort of life then would an honest traffic policeman lead? What did his wife think of his ‘honesty’? What type of person would she be? How did he put food on the table?
If a story will not go away, I move on to the next stage of my process, I mull.
Most of this happens in my mind. I shift things around, change perspectives, tell and retell the story to myself in as many ways as I can. This can take weeks, months… years. As I mull, I’ll write down bits of dialogue, sketch out plot, ask my characters ‘what if’ questions, and sometimes write scenes. But I haven’t actually started writing.
On some random day, I’ll think of a title, like The Pot (don’t ask) for the policeman story. Usually it’ll have something to do with the central conflict in the story which becomes the push I need for the story to come together incorporating the results of my mulling. For a radio play I try to create what I call, writing in a dark room.
Radio plays, like stage plays and screen plays, are dialogue driven with one difference, for radio the listener provides all the visuals. The writer must engage all the senses via the listener’s ear. What has been helpful to me is to initially write the scene or scenes as they come to me, then later sit in a quiet room where I read the scene aloud while periodically closing my eyes to ‘hear’ scene. Then I colour in the setting, sounds, tastes, and so on. It sounds more complicated than it is. Other than the neighbours wondering if I’ve finally lost it, this reading in the dark helps me to get the first draft out. Then I ask a friend to read through and catch any visual slip ups which I rewrite into auditory form. For instance, Tonnie throws the back bag onto the truck becomes Tonnie heaves, there’s a thud as back bag lands on truck.

I read, listen to (or watch) radio plays, stage plays, and screen plays all the time: before I start writing, while I’m mulling, and as I write. The more you read different writers, different types of plays; the more you begin to sense rhythm, the bare bones of story structure, and your work becomes better for it.
Finally, a piece of advice that has helped me as I write – make things as difficult as possible for your characters. Trust their ingenuity. It will surprise you how characters find interesting ways to surmount obstacles. Don’t be fixated about how things should end or by how smart or cute a scene is. Obstacles develop your characters and make them more of who they are, which makes them even more determined to reach their goals.
Like real life, this is a good thing.