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October 7, 2009

Karen Maitland on Writing from Life

A couple of weeks ago I had a rather unnerving experience. I’d arrived in a town I’d never visited before to give a talk. It was a long walk from the railway station and I needed to use the bathroom. All the cafes were closed, so I had to use one of those round, stand-alone toilets in the middle of the street. It was the type that you put 20 pence in the slot and the automatic door slides open, then closes behind you. Every time someone leaves, the whole cubical is flooded with water to clean it. At least, that’s the theory.

But the the mechanism must have been faulty, because as soon as I went inside and locked the door, water began to pour from all the walls. The door wouldn’t open and the water wouldn’t stop pouring in and wasn’t draining out. I clambered on top of the toilet bowl with my suitcase, and balancing there precariously, I wondered if the whole sealed unit was just going to carry on filling with water. Drowning seemed an all too real possibility. The strange thing is that even in my panic, part of my brain was thinking - I could use this experience in a story.

Obviously, I wouldn’t use the ‘bathroom’ scenerio, because I write medieval thrillers and the Middle Ages weren’t noted for their flushing toilets, but I could transfer it to a situation in the Middle Ages where a character was trapped in rising water, because now I’ve had just a sample of what it feels like. That to me is the essence of of the old adage write what you know: it’s the trick of finding a parallel situation in your own experience, extending it and fictionalising it.

A few years ago I lived for 18 months in Nigeria without running water, telephone, sanitation, electricity or any means of storing food. If I wanted a meal at night, that morning I had to collect fuel, get water from the river, go the the market place and bargin for whatever food they had that day and ensure the oil lamps were filled before dark. I had to remember to extinguish the lamps at night long before they were empty. They couldn’t be refilled when they were hot and I might need to light them again in the middle of the night if I heard an animal or human trying to get into the house, which often happened. Of course, I don’t know what it was like to live in the Middle Ages, no modern writer does, but I can use those experiences of being terrified of noises in the dark to write about my own characters’ fears and struggles as I do in COMPANY OF LIARS and THE OWL KILLERS.

In THE OWL KILLERS, Father Ulfrid, the parish priest, discovers a horrific pagan ritual taking place in the graveyard on All Hallows Eve. I haven’t ever witnessed anything like what he sees, that comes from my imagination, but one night in Africa I did witness a bloodchilling ritual in which a woman swelled up to twice her normal height and size. My rational mind said this can’t be happening, it must be a trick, yet my eyes were seeing it. But then I guess you too have had the same experience at times watching a talented magician perform on stage. As writers we can use almost any experience we’ve had, however minor, and the emotions that we felt, and extend those to produce a vivid scene. Although the scene will be drawn mainly from our imagination it will have enough basis in experience to seem real to us. This hopefully will make it feel real to the reader too.

I always remember a chilling footnote to the wonderfully dark novel Shardik by Richard Adams, best known for Watership Down. Shardik certainly isn’t a novel about cute bunnies, but a tale of war and suffering among a primative tribe who worship a mythical bear. In the preface the author writes -

Lest any should suppose that I set my wits to work to invent the cruelties of Genshed, I say here that all lie within my knowledge and some - would they did not - within my experience.”

I can certainly echo that for my novels too.

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