On writing what I know, or, “How do I know things? Let me count the ways.”

This week is a little busy. By Monday morning, I need to have finished all the non-fiction (articles, essays and two conference papers) due until 10 September. That’s over twenty thousand words. I’m part way through and on a roll and all I have to do is work steadily and somewhat obsessively and I’ll make my deadlines. I should be focussed and thinking only of these things.

Of course, this morning I woke up with a thought that was entirely unrelated. It’s not unrelated to my work, just unrelated to any of my deadlines.

A lot of my readers, when the discover my fiction, tell me I’m writing about my own life and that I’m my characters. I’ve been trying to work out precisely why for ages. This morning I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep because I had a sudden realisation of one of the reasons. I don’t know why it was so important to me when really, I needed to sleep, but it was and so I finished thinking it through.

Since I was a child, I’ve had fairly esoteric interests. Also since I was a child, I’ve had family and friends I’ve loved very much who didn’t share those interests. I used to watch Countdown every single week purely so that I could talk with understanding and appreciation to two people close to me about things they loved. Popular music was their love of all things, so I watched the TV show and listened to their favourite tunes whenever they asked me to and I admired their posters. I never went to a live pop concert. Not once.

My live concerts were all classical music, the more ancient or the more Impressionist the better. In my early and mid-teens my favourite singers were Alfred Deller and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and my favourite composers were Mussorgsky and Debussy. In my late teens, I added opera to my personal mix. Yet I’d listen to Bay City Rollers and to ABBA for the sake of those close to me, and not just listen, but learn how they loved them and appreciate the music and the musicians for their sake. I had to actually appreciate them, because otherwise I was doing them an injustice.

Only some of those close to me did the same back. It was years before I had a friend to go to plays and concerts with me, so once a week I’d take a tram and find music for myself. I’d play records and tapes of my music when my family was out or allowed it, but it wasn’t to their taste, so I didn’t always have that opportunity. Living in a big family, one learns to find private time when one’s tastes aren’t part of the shared zone. One learns about what’s appropriate to share. The shared zone included quite a bit of classical music, so this wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I come from a very musical family. My shared time, however, wasn’t for my music, it was for what we all enjoyed or what other people enjoyed.
This has been a totally brilliant background for character development. I don’t just giving my characters interests to tick ‘passion for such-and-such’ off a list, I take the interest on board, deeply, the way I used to take the interests of those close to me on board. My childhood gave me the tools to do this.

However, no matter how real the love or hate of a particular hobby or job looks to my readers, they don’t necessarily reflect my life. Like all writers, I draw on what I need from the world around me, and the world around me is bigger than I am. Thanks to those I’ve loved over the years, I have the tools to interpret some of this bigger world and place it into my fiction as part of my characters’ lives in a very personal and intimate way.

In the opposite direction, a couple of readers of The Wizardry of Jewish Women have commented on the non-magic events for missing this intimate feel of reality. I don’t know which events they’re talking about, but the most distant-feeling of the events in that story actually happened to me. I depicted them as if they were slightly unreal, on purpose, to create the outside world as something that didn’t fit.

This, again, I learned from my childhood and watching Countdown every week so that I could talk to those I loved about the music they loved. My writing comes from my life experience, for that life experience has given me tools for bringing things to life even when they’re well outside my own experiences or making reality feel unreal.

I teach these tools now, when writing students need or want them. But that’s a different story, for another day.

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