Real life and writing

What made me think about it?

This morning I was listening to Woman’s Hour on BBC 4 as I drove around after walking the dog at the foggy harbour, and putting off going to the supermarket. The interviewer was talking to Jessica Ryn. Jessica’s recently launched debut novel The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside 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 bring real life experience to their writing, to essentially know what they’re talking about. She then hastily backpedalled to say going to a ‘good’ university and then immediately writing a novel is ‘one way’ but her instinctive point was made.

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

My own real life and writing experiences

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. A national outcry (the MP for Islington was surprised that his inner London constituents were so outraged), led to a government U-turn. Our forests were saved, at least until next time.

HOOF Chair Rich Daniels leads some 3k Foresters in a protest march Jan 2011

Translating real life into stories

This real life experience led me to write my first books, 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. And it was all set within a forest I know and love.

Then there are my adult books. The Shanty Keeper’s Wife (unpublished) is based on somebody else’s real life and tragic experience.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. It’s loosely based on family history and draws on different bits of real people for its characters, seeing them as I saw them as a small child. And, again, the landscape. Since the book was launched, it’s been wonderful to read so many comments about readers from the US and the UK feeling themselves in Australia in the 1950s, visualising it through the book.

And real life keeps on giving

My current WIP also has an historical inspiration, of a local woman who was a respected herbalist but was tried as a witch, in 1906. It isn’t an historical novel. It’s magic realism, with the ‘witch’ providing a starting point. And while I am not a witch myself (honest), 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.

The key is authenticity

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.

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