A first novel is often produced from autobiographical material. Jeanette Winterson poured her experience of growing up gay in the Pentecostal church into her debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, while the poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, closely parallels her own descent into mental illness. But even writers not blessed – or cursed – with such interesting biographies can use our own experience as a springboard for our first large-scale fiction project.
I’m delighted to have had an article on this subject published in Writers’ Forum earlier this year which arose from Q&As I carried out with debut novelists. If you didn’t manage to catch it in the magazine, you might like to read it here, along with links to the original posts from which I’ve taken the quotes.
What if it had happened this way?
Losing a child is (fortunately) a relatively uncommon experience, but writers who continually ask themselves What if? can find a wealth of possibilities in the dramas, large or small, of their own lives. For example, the mother of a daughter with autism might create a mother of an autistic boy making different parenting choices to those she made herself, as Catherine Simpson did in Truestory.
Others have adapted the biographies of close relatives, like Mary Costello, author of Academy Street: “When [my mother] was three her mother died suddenly … My mother never emigrated but one of her sisters worked as a nurse in New York for four years in the sixties before returning to Ireland. So although Tess shares some biography and geography with my mother and aunt, she is an entirely fictional character and her inner life both as a child and an adult are entirely her own.”
Emma Healey’s Costa First Novel Award winning Elizabeth Is Missing emerged from a conversation with her grandmother in the early stages of dementia: “she told me she didn’t know where one of her friends was – she’d tried calling, but got no answer. Luckily they had a mutual friend who knew that the ‘missing’ woman was staying with her daughter … That was the end of the mystery in real life, but it got me thinking about how that might translate to fiction.”
Even quite mundane events can be reimagined as attention-grabbing fiction: one of my own prize-winning short stories was sparked by the memory of hitching a lift from a man who didn’t take the route I expected.
Familiar emotion, different situation
Emotions that are painful in real life are a gift to the novelist. A Song for Issy Bradley might not have been such an engaging read if its author hadn’t known grief from the inside. But these emotions need to be properly processed before we can make effective use of them in our writing.
Many years had passed since my own painful adolescence when I began writing my debut, Sugar and Snails, about a middle-aged woman who hasn’t managed to move on from a life-changing decision she made at fifteen. My character Diana’s situation is very different to my own but, by re-engaging with the emotions of my traumatic teens, I was able to get under her skin in a way that convinced readers who have faced such circumstances.
While a preachy novel would deter readers, a strong belief in the subject and themes can help maintain the writer’s motivation through the arduous journey from first word to published book. A sense of outrage lies behind Gavin Weston’s 2013 debut, Harmattan, about a girl growing up in rural West Africa. His family had sponsored a girl from Niger until learning, just before her twelfth birthday, that she had been married off and would no longer be part of the programme: “my children just couldn’t get their heads around it. This little girl’s framed portrait had sat nestled amongst other friends and family for six years and now she was married! … I felt angry about the situation, and … that I hadn’t seen it coming: I … knew that child marriage was prevalent right across the Sahel, but I had – incorrectly – assumed that ‘sponsored’ children were protected against the practice … It struck me that what was needed was for the world at large to hear a first person account from a child bride.”
A similar rage at injustice, this time historical, lies behind Johanna Lane’s debut, Black Lake. “It was a story I really needed to tell. My mother’s ancestral home … was sold when I was a teenager. It had been in my family since the 1700s and the loss was devastating. The inside of Dulough [the Irish house in the novel] is based on that house. The outside of Dulough is based on an estate called Glenveagh in Co. Donegal. It was built in the mid-1800s by an awful Scottish man who turned many of his tenants out of their homes at the bleakest, most poverty-stricken moment of Irish history .… I used to visit Glenveagh as a child and … would get so upset and indignant; how dare this man come to our country and do such an awful thing? Then, when I grew older, I had to confront the fact that the blood in my veins is a much closer match to his than that of his tenants. I wanted to come to terms with that and think about what it means to be Irish.”
Prejudice and discrimination inspired Emma Claire Sweeney, author of Owl Song at Dawn. After growing up alongside a disabled sister, she wanted to tell a more positive story about people with cerebral palsy and associated disabilities to counteract the more dominant pessimistic narrative.
Familiarity with the situation and setting
Emma Claire Sweeney didn’t make things easy for herself when she decided to set her debut in Morecambe: “My story began to emerge when I could hear the voices of my main characters: twin sisters born in 1933. Maeve is fêted as the cleverest girl in town and Edie is diagnosed as ‘severely subnormal’. But they both spoke with Morecambe dialects. This posed a problem because I had never set foot in the town.” So part of her research entailed familiarising herself with the place her characters had chosen. Others know their setting before they start to write. Although the West African setting of Harmattan would be unfamiliar to most readers, Gavin Weston “wouldn’t even have contemplated writing this book had I not lived in Niger and experienced life there.”
The Man-Booker shortlisted debut, The Lighthouse, sends the central character on a long-distance walk in Germany following the route author, Alison Moore, had followed on a holiday the previous summer. Claire King wrote The Night Rainbow, set in France, when she was living there. “The setting itself is fictional, but I made it up of several places that I know well, some more intimately than others, as well as some imaginary elements. The meadow is based on somewhere close to our house where I’ve spend years walking with my husband and our dogs, and later with our children.”
A foreign setting isn’t essential; in fact, readers enjoy finding a familiar place reflected on the page. When I set my own debut in the city I’d lived in for two decades, and the house I’d occupied for one, it was to make my story easier to write. Once published, however, I relished discussing the locals’ reactions.
These are just some of the ways in which we can draw on our experience both to bring the story more vividly to life and make a complex task a tiny bit easier for the novice writer, without writing a fully autographical novel. Will these examples provide the springboard for your own?