Allison’s first post (welcome, Allison!) was particularly interesting because I was planning to write about the role of autobiography in fiction for my next post: when we come up with new stories, are we spinning webs from thin air, or are we just rewriting our own experiences? This debate is hot in the British publishing industry at the moment thanks to the recent winner of the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Award. Stef Penney set her novel The Tenderness of Wolves in the Canadian wilderness without having once set foot across the Atlantic; instead, she brought her locations to life with the help of maps and articles in the British Museum. Some people dared to question how she could make Canada sound convincing without seeing it for real; a larger number of people replied that invention is the whole point of fiction, that the writers of Dr Who haven’t been to different galaxies, that JKR isn’t a wizard, and historical writers don’t possess handy time machines. It’s like acting: Liam Neeson didn’t actually rescue hundreds of Jews during the Second World War, but he does a great job of looking traumatized in Schindler’s List.
On one level, I agree with Ms. Penney’s defenders. My most recent horse novel was set during the English Civil War, but I claim to be neither Cavalier nor Parliamentarian. And much as I hate to disappoint thousands of hopeful Warriors fans, I’m not actually a cat.
For my historical series, I do tedious amounts of research into contemporary society, politics and economy so that I know more than I thought possible about my heroine’s environment. Out of this, my original story ideas will be nourished and added to and sometimes changed quite drastically. Then I carry my characters about in my head before I start writing, watching them going about their daily routines and imaging the most humdrum conversations to provide a convincing background for the more dramatic reactions I’m going to evoke from them later on. So I guess my lack of direct experience of an historical period or being feline is countered by a holy trinity of research, imagination and empathy.
However (and this is where Allison’s post comes in), I do try to get some fix on the story from my own life. For example, I invariably write about geographical locations I know inside out – for each of my historical novels, this meant tax-free vacations in beautiful parts of England and Ireland, stomping around with my camera and a notebook, while Warriors is set in a part of southern England called the New Forest, not far from where I grew up. I find that this gives my stories a rootedness they might not otherwise have, a sense that everything could have happened because there is indeed a stone circle on Dartmoor at a place called Scorhill, and it really is possible to row the length of a lake from Oughterard to Galway in western Ireland.
So it seems that I stand with a foot in each camp: imagination and research enable me to set stories in times that I’ve never visited, but I draw on reality as far as I can in terms of unchanging scenery. This accounts for my historical and fantasy fiction, but what about contemporary? For Animal Ark and Heartland, I rely on my good fortune to have grown up on a farm surrounded by animals, as well as being a heavily indulged pony-mad teenager. Dealing with injured animals, solving equine problems – sure, I can do that, for real and in fictitious circumstances. But with my last historical horse novel behind me, I am beginning to think about my next project, which I would like to be set in the present-day. I’ve had an idea for a story tumbling around inside me for some time now, and I’ve got as far as drafting a synopsis and cast list and sending them to my agent. It’s a family-based drama aimed at the young adult market, and I’ve had a lot of fun thinking up the melodramatic teen-parent conversations and conjuring ever more intriguing plot twists from the opening scenario.
I honestly had no intention of drawing on personal experience – the story hopped and staggered into my imagination over a period of weeks and I really enjoyed exploring the different threads offered by the characters and their reactions. It was my beloved housemate Joe who stared at me in astonishment and said, I thought you said you’d never write about that! I stared back in equal astonishment and said, Well, I didn’t mean to. I’m a very private person, and my autobiography is one book that will never hit the shelves (quite apart from the fact that I can’t imagine who would want to read it). But Joe’s right, this story will draw on my personal life in a way no other has, or at least, not in such a recognisable fashion (I’ve always maintained that if you read every Warriors title, you’ll know me inside out and upside down, just with whiskers and a tail). And while Allison is right, that a wife whose husband has cheated might be able to write a much more evocative narrative on similar themes, I have narratives inside me that don’t need to see the light of day. So maybe this is a story that won’t get written, and I’ll let research and imagination do the groundwork once again. For me, the joy of fiction is that I do make it up, that my ideas come from things I see around me, funny little facts that I read in newspapers, people I notice on the train. Life is life; stories are something completely different.
Walter Smith is reputed to have said: There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein. Not me. I’ll conjure up as much blood as you want, gallons of the stuff, dripping from every surface, but it won’t be mine. That stays right where it is, doing a very good job of keeping me ticking.