From Hook to Book

Archive for the tag “Escaping into imagination”

Don’t Write What You Know

“Are you French? No, then set your novel in Australia. Write what you know!”  Words to spark a blogpost and debate.

The jury is out on my Google search into who first spoke the words Write what you know, though Mark Twain and William Faulkner seem to be the main-listed culprits.

Write what you Know would probably have been the first (and most oft repeated) piece of advice I’ve heard quoted as a writer. For a long time, I stuck slavishly to it. Believed in it. Passed on the words of wisdom myself. UNTIL…the day I realised it was given and explained (to me) by someone who took it as literally as I took it from her. Too often “write what you know” advice is given to new writers without adding the all important addendum, until you learn to write and are ready to explore beyond the breadth of your own experience. Or boredom takes you out, whichever comes first.

I mean, was Anna Sewell ever a horse? Was Toni Morrison ever a slave? Did Geraldine Brooks ever live in a sixteenth-century village consumed by the plague?

No. And why didn’t they need to have lived the life, in the place, at the time of the characters and stories they were writing? Because one doesn’t have to be a horse to know how any warm-blooded creature feels to be beaten, starved or left out in the freezing cold. We all recognise and know pain. We all experience illness and the fear of our own mortality. Few of us escape the pain of loss of a loved one.

We live, therefore we experience. As writers we can take those emotions and feelings and impose them on our characters and story events, transport them to places and eras we’ve not personally lived in and make them real. Authenticity comes through connecting the reader to the emotional and lived experience in ways that resonate, in ways a reader can engage with and feel the pain, pleasure or emotional happenings in the story.

I find I sometimes draw subconsciously on my own personal, emotional experiences and don’t necessarily recognise the origins until later. A bit like dreams, I suppose. Some mean nothing and others we can see the wellspring, even if the dawning doesn’t come until much later on.

Sometimes my writing reveals that I know more than I think I know. This proves itself in those rare and wondrous moments when words appear on the page and I sit back and go, Wow! Where did that insight, knowledge, revelation come from? Other times, fine details and rich imagery of place and setting emerge out of much reading and research I may have done months or even years before.

Research, lots and lots of days and weeks of research, shows in the authenticity and emotional connection of good story and characterisation, not merely through the insertion of historical facts or costume/period details. So I can write about a girl in France, enmeshed in a war I did not fight in the trenches or on the homefront. I know how this girl feels to be betrayed, lied to, and scared on finding herself alone in the world, because I can summon up memories of those exact same feelings. I might need to magnify them significantly for my character’s usage, but I’ve been lied to, betrayed and found myself alone in a foreign country, albeit in the latter case by choice. I can impose like feelings and emotions onto my character and make her experience real through adding description and evoking the place.

Yes, I can write what I don’t know, what I’ve never experienced and yet still make it real. So I’m on the no side of the debate team that says “Don’t write what you know”.

If writers did not give themselves permission to write outside their experience, there’d be no science fiction, no spec fiction, no fantasy. No hobbits, or time-travelling Doctor Whos, no Star Wars, ET or Hunger Games.

Personal experience and emotions may be the foundation stone, but the walls and windows come from imagination. Otherwise we’d all be writing the same old same old.

Writing fiction takes courage and research and getting into the psyche of living, breathing people, or animals in Black Beauty’s case. If a writer can take me into the skin of a horse, a Frenchwoman, a soldier, a space warrior, or a Neanderthal tribesman and make it real, I’m happy to go on the journey with them. That is the writer’s job – to transport the reader beyond their disbelief, to a new place, time, life. The writer must believe in their story and bring it to life beyond what they knew when they started out the writing.

Do you write what you know? Or do you go where no man, woman or writer has gone before you? 

Viva La France

Parlez-vous français?

Mais oui!

Gotta love a research trip. Mine is set to go. With flights to France booked for next year and a preliminary itinerary planned, it’s been made real.

This week my French language course books arrived. Tres excitement! Flipping through the pages I’m already recalling my high school French.

I studied the language for three years in secondary school. Funnily enough I recall almost everything I learnt from the first six months and virtually nothing from the next two-and-a-half years. I remember the basics: the numbers, the verb être “to be”, foods and vocabulary, thanks to the Poirot family who liked to eat poisson (fish).

When I began form one (year seven), my family were living for a two-year stretch in a country town in northern Victoria and I went to the Catholic high school where one of the nuns taught French – sans accent. Dare I blame my deplorable French pronunciation on the formidable Sister Austin whose rote learning of verbs and vocabulary impressed the words indelibly into my brain? Perhaps. Sadly, she cannot be blamed for my ongoing struggle to successfully roll my Rs!

We moved back to Melbourne mid-year and I immediately found myself drowning in a class run by a ferocious French woman who refused to allow a word to be uttered not French. To this day, I cannot fathom how she expected me to explain my lack of understanding and language in French, especially when 99 per cent of the time I had no clue what she was saying back to me.

The situation was not helped by her sighting my Term I and II reports where I was shown as an A+ student in French at my previous school. I’m sure she thought I was fudging or lazy.

Mais non!

What I’d understood perfectly well spoken in slow, Australian accented, basic French did not translate coming at me in rapid-fire real French.

Next year, we’ve planned to spend the final two weeks of the trip settled in an authentic French house in a small village in Provence so that I can write up the balance of my notes and write some actual scenes while immersed in the atmosphere and culture of France. This was my one regret from my last novel’s rushed research trip. This time I want to ‘live’ the life (if mostly in my imagination being such a different era) and I see speaking to the locals in the village where we’re staying in their language as an important part. Or at least attempting to.

Armed with a basic French course book, cds and dictionary, I’m hoping to learn to converse enough to pass the time of day and request “un vin blanc, s’il vous plaît” at the very least.

So over the next few months hubby and I are both going to dive into language and all things French in preparation for the trip. Not to mention me researching and sorting heaps of questions, locations and history preparatory to my research around the battlefields in the north.

Here’s hoping any new language and vocabulary I learn will stick too, unlike Mandarin. A recent cleanout turned up my one semester workbook and I was disappointed to realise it was all just Chinese to me.

一白葡萄酒,請

No. 510

Or what should be titled “The best conversation starter ever”.

What began as a trip in 2008 to explore my ancestral roots, grew into a niggle that refused to be stilled. Perhaps weeks of researching my family tree and their migration from Ireland to Scotland and on to Australia placed me in just the right mood to be open to the teeming vibration of possibilities I found from the moment I began to walk through the reconstructed setting of the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine.

Writers will recognise that feeling – that stir – there’s a story here. I didn’t know what it was at the time. All I knew was – “it’s here”. And what a setting? What a history? What a backstory?

I couldn’t use my family story because, well, there wasn’t one. Okay, of course, there is a family background, a migration, of good, solid, hard-working people who flew under the radar and left little trace of themselves or their lives. Not in the newspapers, nor in diaries, or letters – nowhere it seemed of note. A lot of people ask if my novel is my family story. No, it is not. But it is their background, their journey and representative of lives lived in the early nineteen-hundreds, a time of mass migration to this country and the age of the coal industry.

I found little oral history to be told either, much as I quizzed my mother, imploring her to search perhaps missed grey areas of her memory that may turn up some trinkets of possibility. But no. My great-grandparents were battlers who got on with life, despite the loss of more than half their children at birth and in infancy, uprooting themselves twice in search of a better life for their family. They made no fuss or show of their lives and seemingly had no desire to record it. But their background, their journey to Australia, the places they lived, those details I’ve lifted and molded to my story. Some extras too, remembered from anecdotes told by my grandmother, embellished and expanded by Mum, have been woven into a work that is otherwise entirely fiction. But it is the small gems of truth that bring authenticity and texture to my story and were a great thrill for me to include beyond the more impersonal, yet invaluable greater research.

One treasure I did unearth during the research is the medallion I am wearing in the photograph at top left of this blog and reproduced below – No. 510. This is a replica of my great-grandfather John McConaghy’s miner’s token. Every time a pit worker went down the mine, he took his token off the board so that the mine management would know who was below and who to search for in the event of an accident. John’s number was 510 for all the eighteen-years he worked there. My grand-father, Ted Nash, who later married my grandmother (and John’s daughter), along with his four brothers all worked at the mine too, though most of them, including my grandfather, only briefly.

I wear the token on a strip of leather, often, and it never fails to amuse and delight me how often a stranger will ask me the meaning of the number 510, or what the medallion represents. I’ve had strangers ask on trains, in Melbourne Central, restaurants, the supermarket, even in London, who cannot keep their eyes from it, and I watch as their curiosity grows. They’re always intrigued with its background too. I’m often surprised how many people are connected in some way to the State Coal Mine in Wonthaggi or who’ve had ancestors working in coal mines somewhere in the world.

Just thought I’d share this gem and tangible link to my past and my story, which, to me, makes it all the more precious.

Where Writers Write

There’s nothing like the sound of graders and diggers jack-hammering into rock to send a  writer out of the house and into the “real”.

They’re laying new pipes and digging up old drains in the land across from our street. Tearing at my solitude and banging in my headspace.

Sending me out to write in the world out of doors. What a treat! One I forget that I can easily have – anytime – instead of sitting within the same four walls. Today, I rediscovered writing out of my normal environment is also a great idea generating activity. One I intend to utilise more in the future. (And I might need to, if only to escape and preserve my sanity while the new estate goes in over the road.)

Have laptop, and/or notebook, can travel. And where better than to the park on a day like today. Warm and sultry and lulling. SNAP. Into the writing, please. That’s what you’re here for, not to snooze and daydream all day. Oh, scratch that. Daydreaming is good. I’m a writer. I’m allowed to daydream whenever I want – it’s called working for us writers.

Yet, how often was I told as a child to get my head out of the clouds? Oh, what brilliant novels might I have written already if my head had stayed up there imagining all these years. Anyway, time to get those daydreams down. On with it now.

Ideas abound all around the park.

 

From that dog over there – off his lead – sniffing all the wonderful smells and checking out who’s been visiting before him. What stories he could tell.

 

 

 

 

To the ibis wandering around the picnic tables, waiting on crumbs. With such a long beak, I bet that fellow’s ventured into many a body’s business. I’m sure he could tell some tales.

 

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If ideas enough aren’t found in nature, look at the old man sitting on the bench in his old scaffy suit coat on such a warm day. His shopping bags don’t look much like they hold groceries. What stories lie behind the deep grooves in his cheeks, dark with ingrained dirt. What life has he led? Once upon a time did he have a small boy who called him daddy and wanted to grow up just like him? What happened in between?

Or the lady gardener wrenching around the hose on her weed spray with such ferocity like she’d like to pick it up and strangle someone. Who’s she mad at? What was the screaming match about before she left home this morning?

And why is that icecream vendor scowling out his window inviting the customers closer. Not! What does he go home to? Who is not waiting for him at day’s end? Is that why he trundles around the streets into the evening playing his shonky tunes? Why doesn’t he want to go home?

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Do you ever write in the real? Where do you go? How does it change your writing? Do you take your laptop or write longhand? Love to hear your thoughts, just leave me a comment.

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