The problem with all those “who would you like to have at your dinner party” questions is that while various historical figures are fascinating, even if your wish were really to become true you still end up at a slightly awkward dinner party with people who don’t necessarily know each other, to say nothing of having to try to explain spaghetti carbonara to Elizabeth I.
But what about a writing gang? There might be a bit more technology in the 21st century and fewer quill pens but the basic concept of writing hasn’t changed. It’s storytelling, plain and simple, a fundamental common value regardless of era or age, so if we allow for a time machine to have been invented, and presume that they all say yes, who would I choose for a dream writing group? Well no one too obvious because I suspect they’d already be taken. I’d be curious to see whether Shakespeare really could write, and I’d love to talk to Dickens about his childhood, seeing as he’s the reason we all think winters should be very snowy, but I can’t really imagine sitting down around the table with them and getting going, I think they’d either bring on immediate writer’s block or I’d find myself only able to write out quotes of theirs. Not so good.
First on the list though, Dorothy L Sayers. She is my writing hero, both for the cleverness of the plots of her novels and for her characters. Peter Wimsey is brilliant, quirky and just plain entertaining but it’s her writing of Harriet Vane that I love the most. Harriet is clever, independent, stubborn and vulnerable, she owns her choices in life and when I first read the books as a teenager, Harriet was who I wanted to be when I grew up – minus the being tried for the murder of her ex. I’ve always thought of Dorothy Sayers as being a combination of Harriet and the astute and sharp tongued Miss Meteyard in Murder Must Advertise and I can see her being bluntly honest, but kind with it. She’d be able to tell you exactly where your writing had gone wrong, but then help you pick it back up again.
Next around the table and another childhood favourite; Arthur Ransome. Would I be able to hold it together with a calm and very British, “I really enjoy your work.” – of course not. I love the whole Swallows and Amazons series and I’d want to know all about which bit of the real lakes translate to his fictional mishmash and to what extent Dorothea is his younger self, and how she came to take over from Titty as the writer of the group, and a million and one other questions (what did happen to Bob Blackett?). But I’d also want to pick his brains on his writing process. Rather than sit down and write a story from beginning to end, he had it mapped out and then would just tackle whatever chapter he felt like that day. It’s why his unfinished 13th book, Coots in the North, makes such interesting reading; the storyline is there in scribbles and notes interspersed with big chunks of that bits he’d written, but it couldn’t just be finished off because it was such a hotchpotch. I’d want to ask how he mapped it out, how much planning went before the writing, whether he ever started writing one chapter and it ended up in a different place than he thought when it started and what he did with it, and how he decided what he fancied writing each morning. And I’d want to wangle an invitation to go sailing with him!
And then for someone more modern, and perhaps because I think she’d also like to be in a group with Dorothy Sayers, I’d choose Jill Paton Walsh. I read her books as a child and loved them; completely caught up in the worlds she created, and then I was delighted to see that she’d finished off Dorothy Sayers unfinished Thrones, Dominations, continuing the story of Peter and Harriet after their Busman’s honeymoon.
To take such beloved characters and write them convincingly is no mean feat, and we could chat about how she made sure she was keeping true to the original while also bringing in her own ideas and threading the passages together into a seamless whole.
And last but by no means least, Dorothy Whipple. She wrote ‘domestic fiction’ most of which went out of print and was then picked back up again by Persephone Books and republished and although she lived in and writes about a very different time world to today her stories are still completely addictive and the sort of thing that finds me still sitting in a cooling bath turning the hot taps on with my toes because I’m not getting out until I’ve finished. They’re timeless because she writes about people, with painstaking characterisation, and people don’t really change. She’d be the person to bounce ideas off when everyone in your story was being a bit two dimensional, and the person who I just want to know better.
The somewhat predictable thing about doing this exercise is that the more I think, the more people I would include (Molly Hughes, Vera Brittain, Ellis Peters and Frances Hodgson Burnett were all serious contenders for the last place and there are so many more), including a whole heap more current authors that I’d list if it didn’t feel just a little bit stalkerish fan girl to be writing it on the Internet.
The truth of course is that if I ever did find myself in a room with my hypothetical group I would be the quiet one in the corner being ever so slightly awestruck so perhaps I should just stick to re-reading my favourites of all their novels and hoping for a bit of inspiration. But what about you? If you could have a writing gang, or a photography gang or a blog gang who would you choose?