When Mark Twain uttered the phrase, 'Write What You Know', did he realise that those four words could impose huge limitations on writers imaginations? Panic ensues for the majority of us who lead, if not boring, then routine family lives. Do I really want to write about supermarket shopping, trying to find out which of my offspring uses a towel once and drops it on the floor, or when to give worming tablets to the dogs? Do our heroes have to be replicas of our partners, with the same annoying habits? Not the makings of a best seller!
But what does it really mean? After all, Shakespeare didn't know what it was like to be a young girl. But he had been in love before, so he knew how Juliet felt about Romeo. Writing what you know doesn't have to be taken so literally. We've all experienced sadness, grief, love, joy and fear. We've all taken a holiday, sat an exam, had painful unrequited crushes (or is that just me?) and encounted extreme weather conditions. It's our emotions and memories which we can draw on and write about.
Research is essential for accurately getting the facts right. My antagonist, Tess' boyfriend Blake, appears in court towards the end of my novel. I needed to research the workings of a Magistrate's Court. I spoke to lawyers and researched the correct procedure on the internet. In Lies and Linguine, Blake also visits a brothel in Amsterdam's Red Light District. Although I did visit Amsterdam and walked through the area, I drew the line at knocking on a door highlighted by a neon red light! Thankfully the internet came to my rescue for the seedier side of things!
I do think it helps to write a scene if I've visited a certain place. Accurate description can help paint a picture in the mind's eye. Write What You Know makes more sense and can be applied literally when it comes to settings. The photograph above is Car Colston, the village where I live. I've named it Larkston in Lies and Linguine. This is where my protagonist, Tess, lives. This is how I described Larkston in my novel.
After a twenty-five minute commute, Tess’ car rattled to a standstill outside Rose Cottage in the beautiful village of Larkston. The little house’s rent was comfortably affordable because most people didn’t want a morning commute in rush hour into the city of Nottingham. But Tess didn’t mind. For her, living in Larkston was like living in a painting. A narrow winding road curled around the village green, where grasses and wild flowers were given free rein to do as they pleased. By day, cows lolled and grazed on the common land, hemmed in by a small electric fence which crackled its warning at passers-by. A weathered matt pink phone box stood guard over the expanse of grass, the colour of unripe tomatoes, tinged taupe by the sun. The grass of the cricket pitch had been manicured into a smooth velvet covering, where birds dotted its surface looking like bored fielders. Informal gatherings of cottages bordered the edges of the open land, which were fringed by blackberry bushes and mature trees. The embattled clock tower of St Mary’s church rose above Larkston’s homes, protecting the eternally sleeping villagers beneath their storm-tossed head stones. At the heart of the green stood The Royal Oak, which swelled with the laughter of friends and family as they shared news and embellished stories.
Before I wrote my novel, I was fascinated by this magical house in the village. It over-looks the cricket pitch and whilst taking the dogs for their evening walk, I'd notice a light flickering in one of the windows. I wondered who lived there and what their story was. I decided that my hero, Daniel, would be the owner of this gorgeous property. Being young and with the property market being in such a poor state, I had to engineer the story to make it possible. Sadly I had to kill off his parents so that he inherited Larkston Hall from them. Writers can control anything in their novel - if only it was that easy in real life!
Daniel is a troubled artist who's haunted by two tragedies in his past. The death of his parents in a car accident and a further trauma involving his close friend Sean; a tragedy he blames himself for. His guilt and grief leave him with a mild compulsive disorder. An obsession with the number three. He believes that a third catastrophe will be averted if he completes particular tasks, three times.
The evenings had been long and seemingly endless in the early days. He’d spent them numbly staring at the television or in front of a crackling fire in the library. There he’d lose himself in long novels which whisked him away into other worlds. It was usually during these long evenings, after he’d finished reading but before attempting sleep, when Daniel thought about his parents and Sean most vividly. He’d tormented himself as he watched the twinkling orange embers collapse into grey ashes, blaming his own absence for his parents’ death and his wrong decision for Sean’s injury.
Two accidents. Didn’t bad things happen in threes?
This was the day that the number three took on a greater significance in Daniel’s life. He became fixated with the number. He stood up to go to bed, stopping at the library door. His eyes had lingered on the light switch. Perhaps if he switched it three times it’d keep the third disaster from happening.
OFF. ON. OFF.
This photograph is taken at the top of Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath. I visited London just to spend the day on the Heath so I could colour my descriptions with more depth. My hero Daniel, has a twin sister called Denise who lives in London with her family. She's never had to fight for anything in her life, but after finding a breast lump, she must fight for life itself. This extract is from a family visit to Hampstead Heath. It's written before her life is turned upside-down.
“Come on slow coach, we’re nearly there,” she panted.
Four year old Sam was lagging behind, head bowed and pushing his chubby hands onto his bare scuffed knees with each laborious step he took up Parliament Hill. Simon had been a little way ahead with their eldest son Peter. It was a Sunday afternoon on a warm sunny blue-skied day. The melody of an ice-cream van tinkled up the hill, as lazy bees zig-zagged from daisy to daisy.
Today they were exploring Hampstead Heath in all its wondrous beauty. Living close by meant that over the years, they’d already discovered most of its wonderful secrets. Hidden glens, ponds obscured by leafy willows, crooked trees for small boys to climb and best of all, the stunning expansive views from the top of Parliament Hill. The boys loved visiting the adventure playground and watching the entertainers - clowns, puppets and magicians. Fairs visited on summer bank holidays and Simon took them fishing on the calm lakes. When each summer was almost over and the hint of autumn floated on the breeze, they’d pick a basket of blackberries to freeze and cook throughout the winter months. It was their special place to people-watch, fly kites, share picnics or just to wander and gaze.
It was to drink in the breath-taking view from the top of Parliament Hill, that they were climbing the grassy mount to the highest point in the city of London. An excited yell from the top of the hill drew her attention upwards. She shielded her eyes and laughed as Simon and Peter waved their arms above their heads having reached the top. She stopped and waited until Sam had caught up.
“Mummy, can we have an ice-cream when we go back down?”
“Of course, but let’s play king of the castle and sit on the top of the hill first.”
“Can we sit on our favourite bench?”
“If it’s free we can.”
Denise had held out her hand to her youngest son, which he grasped tightly.
“Can I have a piggy back?”
Denise chuckled between breaths. “Phew, mummy is very old Sam and doesn’t have your young legs to carry her, let alone carry a little boy as well.”
“I’m not little, I’m four.”
“Compared to mummy and daddy you’re little.”
“Yes…phew,” she panted.
“How old are you?”
“Mmm, well you shouldn’t really ask a lady how old they are, but because I know you can keep a secret, I’m thirty-two.”
“If you’re thirty-two and Uncle Daniel is your twin, then he is thirty-two too!” Sam had giggled and repeated, “thirty-two too, two too.”
“That’s right, there are no flies on you are there!”
Sam looked at his arms and bent double to survey his legs. “No.”
“No it means….never mind, look we’ve made it.”
Simon stood next to Peter on the summit, his arm draped around his eldest son’s shoulders. They were standing with their backs to her, looking at the view of the city.
“Hello, you two.”
They turned, smiling.
“Beat you,” Peter teased.
“Mum is very old and she has thirty-two legs. No, I mean her legs are thirty-two and old, so I had to stay with her,” Sam explained.
Simon laughed and kissed Denise’s cheek. “Sexiest old legs I’ve ever seen,” he whispered in her ear and tapped her bottom.
St. Mary's Church stands in the centre of our village. I lie in bed at night and listen to the mellow tones of the bells striking the hour. It doesn't play a significant part in my book, but is mentioned several times.
Larkston slept quietly the night before the exhibition. A rusting lamp spilled its pale glow onto the village green, flickering as if blinking tiredly. The silence was only broken by several persistent moths which fluttered repeatedly against the bulb’s plastic covering. A dusting of mist coated the grass like a froth of fungi, spreading a ghostly white blanket across the cricket pitch and countryside. St Mary’s church bell tolled three times, unheard by the sleeping villagers.
I loved writing this chapter. Above is a photograph of our village's Little Green. (The Big Green is in front of The Royal Oak) This is where Daniel took his dogs for a walk and the heavens opened drenching them all. Tess had seen Daniel walk past her cottage, so when the storm broke, she realised that Daniel had no protection from the elements. She raced to rescue him, her heart racing at the thought of seeing him again.
Tess rinsed her hands again and glanced up as she heard tapping on the window. Raindrops were spotting all over the glass. After drying her hands, she started stacking the dishwasher just as the tapping turned into a loud hammering. The rain beat down on the windows with ferocious strength. Tess was just thinking that a second deluge of water in twenty four hours would be good for her sun-baked lawn, when she remembered Daniel. He’d passed by with the dogs and the only place for dogs to run in that direction would be the little green, which had no shelter.
Without hesitating she shoved the pizza in the oven, grabbed her car keys and an umbrella from under the stairs and ran down the garden path. She jumped in her car and accelerated along the road with her wipers waving frantically in front of her. The rain pounded against the roof of her little car, deafening the music from the radio. She turned the corner and saw the expanse of grass and wild flowers being battered by the downpour. Standing in the middle of the green she saw Daniel and his dogs, hunched together under a mature tree. She beeped her horn and saw him turn to look towards her car.
Realisation dawned. She’d driven to Daniel’s rescue without giving it a second thought. Now here she was - the unimaginable about to happen. He would be sitting in her car, enclosed in this tiny metal box inches away from her within seconds. She hyperventilated as she saw Daniel running towards her. It was thrilling and terrifying. She took a lungful of air and exhaled slowly. He was a few feet away now, so she rolled down her window a few inches and yelled.
“Get in. It’s a strange ark but you’re all welcome aboard!”
Daniel opened the back door and jumped in gratefully. Harlyn and Brook leapt in after him and shook themselves on the back seat, showering them both.
“Best ark I’ve ever seen. Thanks.” He smiled at her through the rear view mirror.
Tess looked at his handsome wet face in the mirror. She felt awkward and shy now that he was sitting in her car with her. She hoped he couldn’t tell her heart was hammering against her chest, so decided to make up an excuse for passing by.
“I was on my way to Jackson’s mini store for some….mushrooms.”
Daniel leaned forwards so that his head was between the two front seats.
“Thanks for stopping. I was beginning to think I’d need a snorkel!”
His voice was inches from her ear, tantalizingly close. She could feel his breath on her skin as he spoke and could smell a faint lemon fragrance from his soapy shower.
This is the tree seat looking towards the village green and The Royal Oak. Tess tries to help Daniel overcome his phobia of fireworks, brought on by witnessing his best friend being maimed by a wayward rocket. She has done some research and believes that confronting a fear is the first step to overcoming it. She suggests that Daniel sits with her on the tree seat and watches a firework display on November 5th.
Tess shone the torch on the rough grass as they trudged across the green towards the bench. Behind them they could hear the crowds cheer as a rocket screeched skywards.
Daniel flinched and hoped that Tess didn’t feel it.
“They’ve started, you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Daniel lied, as they turned and sat beneath the skeletal canopy of the huge tree.
Sitting with their arms still linked, they both looked ahead towards the distant glow of the bonfire. The navy blue sky was bare and clear. Daniel thought how romantic this would be if they were on their own instead of sharing the village green with hundreds of people and waiting for disfiguring bombs to explode. Laughter occasionally broke free from the huddled crowd as voices cheered into the night, serenaded by crackling sparks from the fire.
Suddenly, the sky lit up with brilliant arms of cascading gold and silver stars. Bright glowing pearls rose silently into the darkness, dissolving into the heavens. Blue tracer stars crackled as they wriggled in a sparkling mesmeric dance. Gold clusters of star-bursts flashed and glittered above the green, lighting upturned faces. The whizzing and whirring echoed across the cricket pitch and far past the village.
Daniel pulled his scarf up to hide his mouth and nose. He didn’t think that a soft cashmere mix, a gift from his sister, would be much protection from a wayward explosive, but it made him feel warmer and safer. He turned to look at Tess to see if she was looking at him with a pitying gaze. Fortunately, she was looking skyward with a hint of a smile on her glistening lips. Her profile was silhouetted against The Royal Oak’s lights, a pale glow outlining her features. His eyes were drawn to her smooth neck which stretched upwards as she watched another rocket explode into a chrysanthemum of stars. Her lips parted slightly as a series of whistling clusters shot into the black night. He watched her eyelashes blink with each explosion and burst of colour. From the position they were sitting in, Daniel slightly behind Tess, he could watch her in secret against a backdrop of Swarkovski crystals raining down from the sky.
So, for the next ten minutes whilst a crescendo of squeals, oohs and aahs emanated from the distant crowd, and a climax of whistles, bangs and crackles sprang from the sky, Daniel focused on Tess. He drank in the curves of her profile and the warmth of her body leaning against him. A cheer and a noisy round of applause heralded the end of the display. Tess turned towards Daniel.
“I’m fine,” he answered, truthfully. Watching the fireworks as a background to Tess’ lovely face, had been the perfect way to be re-introduced to the volatile explosives. They were the colour wash to the central eye-catching subject of the painting - Tess.
As Daniel walks Tess home, she gives him a piece of paper. The note contains information which changes Daniel's future. I can't give away what has been downloaded from Tess' computer, but it shocks him to his core.
Daniel laughed, having read it for the fourth time. It was the laugh of a hostage’s first view of open meadows after years of captivity - heady with manic relief. He shook his head and ran his hands through his hair. How thoughtful of Tess to let him read it privately. His eyes glistened with tears as he laughed again with loud rasps, his head thrown back and his hands clutching handfuls of hair. He paused, open-mouthed in disbelief.
Standing up, he paced around the table still clutching his hair. Like a demented Dickensian character, his frenzied laughter was interspersed with undecipherable words which he chanted to himself. His hand slipped to cover his face as he bent forwards, his laughter slowly morphing into deep uncontrollable anguished cries. His body shuddered with violent racking sobs as he leant on his folded arms against the kitchen wall.
He cried with relief. He cried for his parents. He cried for forbidden love.
Our family visits Cornwall during the summer and at Christmas. We know every alley way and short cut of Padstow, so it made writing a scene set in the little harbour town, so much easier. In Lies and Linguine Tess' parents still live at her childhood home near Padstow. Tess is offered a chance to fulfil her dream. She's always wanted to own and run a tea shop, and when one comes available over-looking the harbour, she makes an appointment to view it. I won't give the story away and tell you whether she buys 'Crimpton's Tea Shop', but here's a paragraph or two from the chapter.
The smell of fish and chips wafted around Padstow’s harbour, as Tess and her parents made their way to view the tea shop. Brightly coloured boats bobbed up and down on the water, like plastic ducks at the fair waiting to be hooked for a prize. As usual, the seagulls were out in force pestering the weekend visitors. The tourists were oblivious to the cunning skills the greedy gulls possessed in order to steal a chip or two. Four children ran past, their ice-cream-smeared mouths looking like clowns’ make-up.
The sun shone weakly through a thin veil of clouds, as Tess and her parents stopped outside the tea shop and looked up at the white-washed building. It was a small two-storey cafe directly facing the beautiful harbour. There was no doubt that its position was perfect. It had black paint work and a sign hanging over the door which read, Crimptons Tea Shop. Below the name was a picture of a pretty tea-pot with a cup and saucer.
Celia linked arms with Tess. “Isn’t it perfect darling?”
“It’s very pretty mum.”
“A manageable size, not too big to start off with.”
“Let’s have a look inside then.”
This is where our family stays when we visit Cornwall. The house over-looks majestic Harlyn Bay and the garden peters out onto the beach. We have spent many happy holidays in this house, so this is where Tess' parents live in my novel. Tess visits Harlyn Bay three times. Once is set a Christmas time where there's much laughter and frivolity. Another visit is beset with disappointment and despair. This excerpt is from her first visit home where it dawns on her that she's fallen in love with Daniel.
At the water’s edge, strands of seaweed tickled her toes as a smooth pebble cart-wheeled on a shallow wave and stopped at her feet. She picked it up and stared at it in disbelief. Lying in her palm was a pebble – the perfect shape of the capital letter D. Was it a sign? Tess shook her head with a smile. Now she was just being sentimental. Common sense told her that somewhere on its ocean-tossed journey, this pebble would have smashed against rocks and split in two. She wrapped her fingers tightly around her precious rescued treasure. Glancing along the deserted beach to check that she was alone and that the kite flyers had left, she breathed in deeply, closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun.
“I love you Daniel Cavanagh,” she shouted out to sea, his name lost amongst the call of the gulls.
The beach is where my story ends. My four main characters have obstacles to overcome before they reach the finale. Will Daniel overcome his demons and allow himself to love again? Will Tess find out that it's a devious lie which is stopping her from leaving her boyfriend? Can Denise beat her life-threatening illness? And does Blake escape a prison sentence and win Tess' heart back?