Real life and books

This morning I was listening to Woman’s Hour on BBC 4 as I drove around walking the dog – see foggy picture attached – and putting off going to the supermarket. The interviewer was talking to Jessica Ryn who has recently launched her debut novel The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside which is set in a homeless shelter, very much like the one Jessica worked in it seems. The interviewer made the point how important it is for writers to be able to bring real life experience to their work, to, essentially know what they’re talking about. She then hastily backpedalled to say going to a ‘good’ university and then writing a novel is ‘one way’ but her instinctive point was made.

It made me think how far this point should be made, going back over my own writing and how real life has impacted it.

Ten years ago to the day/month I was deeply involved in the Hands Off Our Forest campaign to save England’s public forests being sold to the highest bidder, with all the implications of not only loss of access but possibly loss of forest. A national outcry (the MP for Islington was surprised that his inner London constituents were so outraged), led to a government U-turn and our forests were saved, at least until next time. This real life experience led me to write my first books, what is now the Guardians of the Forest trilogy. Possibly I should have written about the campaign itself, with all the different personalities involved. Maybe I will one day, a bit further on… What I did write about was how outrage leads to action, to risk-taking, to taking ourselves out of our comfort zones and finding resources and strengths to battle the villains, all set within a forest I know and love.

Then there are my adult books. The Shanty Keeper’s Wife is based on somebody else’s real life and tragic experience. I can’t say, thankfully, that I know what it’s like to be an abused wife, or have an alcoholic husband – those things I had to get inside Betsy’s head to try and tease out. But what I could bring was my knowledge of the country, of the ‘bush’, of the sound of kookaburras and magpies warbling and the chill of a Jamieson morning (for I know that area a bit from spending weekends in the old gold mining town of Valhalla). Keepers is even more personal, being loosely based on family history and drawing on different bits of real people to create my characters, seeing them as I saw them as a small child. Finally, my current WIP has an historical inspiration also, in a local woman who was a respected herbalist but was tried as a witch, in 1906. My WIP isn’t a historical novel. It’s magic realism, with the ‘witch’ providing a starting point, but I have come back to my Forest setting, to the river and fields and woods, to ancient wells and to towns and villages I know.

I suspect authenticity is one of the key components of that magic factor, Voice. I’m not saying we should only write about what we know, but leveraging our own life experiences to give an edge of truth to the rest, must surely make us better writers.

And here’s the promised foggy picture, of boats moored on the canal from the River Severn


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