It is often said that everyone has at least one book in their head. It is also said that truth is stranger than fiction. If you take these quips on board, every one of us has the capacity to write a book. It logically follows that said book should be about events we have traversed on our life journey.
The ensuing question is, how skilfully would that book be written? Who would read it? (Aside from your mum and some close friends). Life events that are riveting to ourselves and our inner circle are possibly not the fodder for a best seller. If we haven’t had an exciting life, do we all still have a novel fermenting away? How do you even start the process?
It is something I have thought on lately as I have begun a few projects. My beloved high school English teacher sent me out into the world expecting a book would appear at some juncture. Since those school days life has handed me a certain plethora of material, much of which I am informed is ‘novel worthy’. Presuming that is the case (with the naive arrogance of the beginner), it raises questions of how a first book comes into being for any writer.
How did our favourite authors kick start that first successful novel? In certain cases that book becoming their only real success; yet stupendous enough a tome to make an enduring name for themselves. For me, unless the book is a fantasy/sci-fi affair, the key factor seems to be a connection to a certain human truth from the writer. Character detail that I relate to, empathise with, that makes real emotional sense. Certain authors trigger something in your gut that is hard to outwardly express. You ‘know’ them through their words.
That has made me re-examine some of the books I have loved for many years. Books of course come in many, many forms. Writing any book takes dedication and usually a hefty amount of research. Yet, I was interested to discover that many of my favourite books stem tangibly from the lives of the authors. In some cases a direct narrative of their experiences and in most, stories drawn from places and people they have known intimately. Interspersed with facets of their own personality and soul.
A short cook’s tour of some greatest hits then.
A childhood favourite. I’ve adored Gerald Durrell since I was not even quite in my teens. The book that put him on the map was “My Family and Other Animals”. As the title suggests, it is autobiographical. The writing is exquisite, funny and poignant. The world as seen through his eyes as a young boy living in Corfu directly prior to the Second World War. Durrell became a prolific author, writing a stream of books about his life as a zoologist. I have many of them on my shelves and some no longer in physical print have made their way onto my Kindle.
Bryce Courtenay wrote his incredible novel “April Fool’s Day” in 1993, telling the story of his haemophiliac son who had died of AIDS related complications in 1991, (having contracted the virus via a blood transfusion). Courtenay was born in South Africa and emigrated to Australia in 1958, his South African years subsequently producing “The Power of One”.
A variety of authors have told their own stories, but portrayed them through characters of fictitious name created as a mirror of themselves. Miles Franklin wrote “My Brilliant Career” in that format. An ill disguised attempt to relay her own story of struggle as an intelligent young woman living in rural Australia. She received acclaim for the book and scathing criticism from those who recognised themselves amongst her characters. In a previous article I have waxed lyrical about Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. Indeed, Du Maurier spent much of her life in Cornwall and sourced much of her material from the places there she loved. The Estate of ‘Manderley’, so pivotal to the story of “Rebecca”, is modelled on ‘Menabilly’ in that same county. Daphne Du Maurier was so enamoured of the home, she was later to rent the property and live there for some years. Unattractive and controversial aspects of Rebecca’s personality she viewed as her own; whilst certain aspects of the narrator’s nameless persona she described as her own emotions and general confusion as a young girl.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is an Australian icon and much has been said about whether it is based in truth. This is an interesting one to examine. Despite much conjecture, a party of school girls never met the fate of Miranda, Irma, Marion and Miss. McGraw at the Rock. What can be established is that Joan Lindsay knew the area very well; and in fact based Appleyard College on her own school, which was relocated to Mount Macedon some years after she had graduated. In 1962, Lindsay wrote a novel titled “A Time Without Clocks” which referenced an odd phenomenon she herself experienced where clocks and machinery would stop when she drew near. This factored into “Picnic at Hanging Rock” in 1967, where every watch stops at 12.00pm at the ill fated picnic. Joan Lindsay created the landmark book in a mere fortnight, writing tirelessly after a series of dreams gave her the storyline. Peter Weir fittingly opens his film of the same name with Miranda’s dialogue, “What we see and what we’ve seen are but a dream. A dream within a dream”. #cuepanpipes 😉
I finish this potted list of greatest hits with the legendary “Sherlock Holmes”. Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle was nearly driven mad by people asking if Holmes indeed existed. He became so consumed by the character he killed him off and had to resurrect him some time later. The acute public disappointment and pressure brought about by his creation’s death demanded he reappear. Holmes was of course fictional, but evolved through Conan Doyle’s own experiences. Conan Doyle studied under a physician named Joseph Bell, a brilliant man and acute reasoner. His form of inductive reasoning fascinated Conan Doyle, who went on to become his assistant for a time. From that relationship and close study of a colleague came Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson was subsequently a medical man and a reflection of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle himself – assistant to a perceived genius. In 1892 Conan Doyle wrote to Joseph Bell declaring, “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes”. He did not receive a positive response. Bell did all he could to distance himself from any association with the infamous character, as talk of it detracted from his practice.
In the end, I guess what one can take away from examining great books is a factor in great writing is personal truth. That cannot be manufactured, and many of the best stories are not pulled out of the air. Whether one’s own ‘test drive novel’ will fly is a leap of faith. It will be many months of work for any writer. A fairly raw bit of self sent out into the world like a cherished baby. Perhaps to blossom into a prize winner.. or very likely to come home from its adventure in a return envelope, destined to line the kitty litter tray.
The books I’ve examined today certainly support the theory of “write what you know”.
I did give Mrs. Woolford my word I’d write a book one day, as I stood before her in my atrociously yellow school uniform. She was one of those educators whose belief in you stays with you for life. Sadly she has now passed away and won’t ever read it.
One should never break ones word. However many years it takes to get there. ❤
Bryce Courtenay – Penguin Books Australia
Sherlock Holmes – Website
The extraordinary story behind Picnic at Hanging Rock (Janelle McCulloch)