Part of being a writer means developing a style that is clearly one’s own, a means of expression that is recognisable and pleasurable for the reader. It has taken several years to develop mine and the process is by no means over. Finding my voice required constant writing and rewriting, thinking and questioning. My style, such as it is, has emerged little by little as I make decisions about how to express myself clearly and pleasurably.
I have found that all aspects of the novel – character, plot, theme, dialogue, structure, and so on – are all wonderfully interlinked. A change to one could not happen without a consequent change to all the others. The same is true of grammar. I found it had a fundamental impact on the meaning I was trying to bring out through telling a story.
My first novel, ‘In the Shadow of the Mountain’ is about a young and newly commissioned army officer and how he learns to inspire his platoon of soldiers, many of whom are older than him and all are more experienced. I know – or should I say, I was taught – that all verbs must agree with their subject: a man walks but men walk.
But in the writing of ‘Mountain’ I found I had to ignore this rule and develop a literary trope in handling compound nouns that made a specific point. A platoon (or a company, or a brigade) is a body of people, a unit of human beings.
To unify them into a single entity is to deny their collective individualities, their existences, their plurality. To me, a platoon of men is not the same as a flock of sheep or a school of fish. I am perfectly happy to write that a school is or a flock was. But when one is writing about compounds of people, one must recognise that the constituent parts all have hopes and aspirations, dreams and souls. Since ‘Mountain’ is the fictionalisation of the experience of learning how to lead, I am suggesting that being able to see the individual within the corporate whole is an important element of that process.
Grammar, therefore, is intrinsically linked to theme: the platoon were.