Salman Rushdie talks about a history professor at Oxford who told him, “You must never write history until you can hear the people speak.” That’s as true – if not more true – for fiction.  I abandoned a novel ms not too long ago because, though I could see the character the novel was to be about, and the place it was to be set, I never did hear her.  And the novel wasn’t write-able without the sound of her voice.

The sound of the characters’ speech should be inevitable: exactly right.  So should the setting, the created world of the fiction.  This doesn’t require pages of exposition – which is deadly.  It requires well chosen, specific details.  Mary Costello’s first short story collection, The China Factory, is full of these – the kind of details that illuminate place, character, relationship in a very few strokes.  Her writing is clean and spare and very good.

Memoirs fall into two general categories – shockers and quests.  Both feature a before and some kind of cathartic after, but they do it in different ways. The shockers are voyeuristic reads in which we witness the writer crash and burn and then resurrect –   from depravity/abuse/some kind of trauma.  The quests are journeys where the writer is trying to figure something out and the reader is invited along for the ride.  It’s “watch me” vs “come with me”.  Shockers are narcissistic, quests are universal.  They aim to address the human condition, and despite the specificity of the individual journey, allow us to recognize ourselves in someone else.

David McGlynn’s memoir, A Door in the Ocean is a quest.  It’s also a beautifully written book marked by precision of language, acute observation and the sense that the hard work of defining what’s important to him and why has not been shirked.  He struggles – in his life, and on the page – to define the meaning of family and religion and morality, and to show us the struggle. It’s a brave book.

Begin with the enforced intimacy of a place – preferably remote and rural. Add a handful of people who haven’t seen each other in a long time/don’t get along/have secrets. Toss in some bad weather. Stir.

It’s the set-up for a lot of novels, full of potential volatility, though it can feel tired, even dreary if not handled well.

In his new novel, The Red House, Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, handles it very well.