Friday, February 13, 2015

Gilli Allan: Writing from experience

Today we welcome Gilli Allan to the blog.

At school, as soon as we’ve mastered writing, we’re told to ‘Write about what you know’.  But what do children know?  Their world is necessarily limited, their experiences - hopefully - benign.  To a young child, the imagination can be almost more real than reality. My imaginary world was peopled with princes and princesses, red Indians, knights in armour, fairies, witches and magic.

As a teenager I was fascinated by the gothic. I sought out books about cavaliers, highwaymen and pirates; stories where the heroine is imprisoned by an evil relative; books about houses riddled with secret passages and priest holes.  To be set an essay about ‘what you did in the holidays’ was not only boring, it was also divisive.  I would have spent most of my summer in prosaic occupations - drawing, reading and writing, and taking our dog for a walk, then holidaying in Cornwall. Lovely though it was, in the one-upmanship of the playground, Cornwall was no match for sailing around the Greek islands, flirting with waiters in Majorca or camping near the French Riviera. Always far safer and more interesting, to invent something
For most of us, it isn’t until there are at least 3 decades under your belt that you can understand what writing from experience really means.  By then you will have been touched by one or more of life’s big events - falling in love, marriage, childbirth, divorce, heart-break, illness, bereavement - and now have the maturity to draw something deeper from the life you have lived.  But ‘write about what you know’ is still a misleading adage.  If you were only ‘allowed’ to write truthfully about what you had personally experienced, you wouldn’t be producing fiction: you’d be writing autobiography.

Fiction is fiction because you’ve made it up.  It’s a story!  There are some authors who almost make it a point of principle to set their novels in countries they’ve never even visited.  I admire their chutzpah, but I haven’t the courage, or energy necessary to do the research. I set my stories in a world I know, but seen through the distorting glass of my imagination.  And I draw on events from my past, but only after a passage of time has filtered the rawness of the emotions as well as the irrelevant detail.  The experience is then trimmed, tucked, tailored and embroidered, to fit my story.

But ‘writing what you know’ isn’t just taking events from your own past and reimagining them. It can be a far more subtle and nuanced than that.  When creating your protagonists, you also invent a landscape to set them in; you give them their own problems and their own hopes and fears. In doing so, you are mining everything you have absorbed about life, about people, about motivation and instinct. And to make your invented characters’ experiences come to life, you call up your sense memories of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.  These may be nostalgic - a hill top in early summer, the fields below gilded by a sheen of yellow buttercups; the scent of may blossom, lady’s lace and nettles;  the feel of the chill, dewed grass against skin; the song of a skylark; a distant tractor.   But there are some sense memories you recall which may be horrific, like the jarring impact of a car crash, the screeching tear of metal, the smell of petrol, singed rubber and asphalt, and those long, cold moments of stunned silence, before the first cry of a baby. 

Nothing is forbidden to the writer’s palette.  Everything you have ever known, seen, felt, smelt, suffered, is there to be used, to turn your imaginary world into a world the reader believes in.  

About Gilli:
As a child writing and art were Gilli’s hobbies. Writing was side lined in adulthood, when she worked in advertising as an illustrator.It was only after having her son that Gilli began writing seriously. Her first two novels were quickly published but her publisher ceased to trade. After years in the wilderness Gilli went independent with the emergence of E-book. Still a keen artist, she designs Christmas cards and has begun book illustration. Gilli is delighted to have secured a three book deal with Accent Press.

Amazon: Torn

TORN  by Gilli Allan
Jess has made a series of bad life choices and all have let her down. 
Escaping London, she sets out to recreate herself in the idyllic countryside, and this time she wants to get it right! 
She wants to lead a responsible, tranquil life with her young son Rory, but soon discovers stresses which pull her in opposing directions – conflict over a new bypass, between friends, and worst of all, between lovers. 

Educated, experienced, and pragmatic, James is a widowed farmer whose opinions differ from, and enrage, Jess. His young shepherd, Danny, is an uneducated and inexperienced idealist. Jess is attracted to them both, and realises if she wants her idyllic countryside life to survive, she must choose her Mr Right. 

Thank you Gilli and good luck with your novel.

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Elaine Everest and Natalie Kleinman

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Gilli Allan said...

Thank you, Elaine - and the RNA blog - for allowing me to waffle on.

It's a surprising pleasure to be made to think about why and how I write. (I never know what I think until I write about a subject!).

I hope something of what I've said can be identified with by others here.


Anne Stormont said...

Gilli, I agree. For me, writing is a subtle sort of mining of where I've been and what I've experienced. And then the alchemy of the imagination does the rest.

I really enjoyed 'Torn' by the way. It was my Christmas read. I guessed wrongly as to the outcome, which made it more satisfying in a way.

Gilli Allan said...

Thank you Anne. And I am thrilled you enjoyed TORN.


John Jackson said...

Thanks Gilli,
An excellent post. I'b busy with the "First Book, First Draft" and although I'm working with a basic format of facts and their order, I find I'm drawing on my own life experience for "how does he/she do that?", "what would they be feeling?", etc.
I'm also finding that doing this is, in itself, like turning over a rock in a pool. You don't know what will appear, or what road you will go down.


Gilli Allan said...

Exactly, John. You never know what's going to come floating to the surface until you start rummaging around amongst those old memories and old experiences.


Sheila Norton said...

I enjoyed this post, Gilli, and agree with all the points you make. I often have to emphasise to people that my books are FICTION, and although I might sometimes call upon parts of my own life as background, that doesn't make them autobiographical!

Gilli Allan said...

I never believe authors who say they don't use their own experience, when writing fiction. How can you not?
It doesn't mean that what you write is a faithful account of something that happened to you. It just means that you use your own life, your own responses as a resource. How would I feel if...? How did I feel when...?

Marie Laval said...

Very interesting post, Gilli. I do agree that to create believable characters, who experience feelings and emotions readers can relate to, you need the life experience you don't necessarily have when you're young. As for settings of novels, I usually choose a mix of locations I know well and others I can only dream of visiting one day. This means I have to research quite a bit, but that's part of the fun of being a writer!

Gilli Allan said...

Thanks Marie.
It's always a cocktail. There's a sense in which everything I write is 'made up'. I just take a bit from here and a bit from there and give it a stir. And sometimes a memory only comes back to me after I've started writing. It's as if the creative process, disturbs something hidden deep in the subconscious. John, above, describes it very well. It's like turning over rocks in a pool. Who knows what floats to the surface?

Unknown said...

I think a lot of my writing (apart from a few artickes) is imaginary. It is, I believe, a gift I have. Ok, so i may not be the best novel writer in the world, but I think I have more in my imagination than in my experience. I have watched a lot, in my time, read a lot also. Combined, what I have taken on board comes together in a twosome to construct my stiporie. I never went with what tutors said about ' writing what you know' either.

Gilli Allan said...

I think you are agreeing with me, Evelyn. I have never said *everything* I write is from my own personal experience. But it is my belief that whatever kind of story you write, whether Sci Fi, fantasy or romance with billionaires in exotic locations, it will still be underpinned by the life *you* have lived, your impressions, your emotions, your responses.
Just my opinion, of course!

Unknown said...

Elaine Everest your article is life-saving for me. Thanks for sharing your experience about writing.
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Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gilli Allan said...

Hello - it's me, Gilli Allan, who wrote this post! maybe you meant to comment on another article?

Unknown said...

Good Work Elaine Everest, If you are serious about your writing, Write a Book: Get Published, Write Now! is as important a tool as your laptop or your pen. Do yourself a favor, and just buy it...write my term paper