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Pouring 'Real Life' Into Fiction

Kerry Hudson

Like many of you reading this, a few years ago writing a novel seemed like an impossible dream to me. Yet as I sit down to write this I am also checking Twitter at regular five-minute intervals because last week the pre-publication proof copies of my second novel, Thirst, were sent to journalists, writers and reviewers. This means sporadically someone will tweet a 140 character review and put my terrible second novel nerves as ease. It might also be worth mentioning that I’m sitting in a café in Budapest where I’m currently writing my third novel.   

Even as I type those words: second novel, third novel, I can’t quite believe it. I always believed that writing novels was ‘something other people did’, that the literary world was an impossible kingdom of ivory towers where, as a working-class woman with little formal education, I would not be welcome. 


Background

I was twenty-seven when I felt brave enough to start writing and I'd been working on short stories seriously and with the intent to have them published for around sixteen months before I decided I had to write a novel. To do this I took a six month sabbatical from my job at an AIDS NGO and used every penny I had to fund six months in Vietnam writing full-time.  At no time did I ever dare to imagine that that book, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, would be published.

I wrote the novel because I had to. Because I wanted to explore the world I had grown-up in, the working-class streets of Britain in the eighties and nineties, for my own personal reasons. I wrote it because I was passionate about somehow communicating the warmth, humour, fury and frustration that I had observed growing up in that community and because I felt compelled to write about the rich interior worlds of a sector of society that so rarely gets represented in literature.


Learn as you write

So I sat down at my desk in sweltering Hanoi, an overhead fan whirring above, the chickens in the alley outside clucking away, the kids in the Kindergarden next door playing some sort of clapping game. How do you begin writing about your own childhood experience, a complex thing even on a personal level and even more so when you're, at least theoretically, writing for others to potentially read it?

I learned as I wrote and, for me, writing that first book, waking every day with just my story to write and my own company was a wonderful experience. Six months later I had a finished draft of Tony Hogan...which I sent to my now literary agent and about five months after that I signed my book deal with Chatto and Windus at Random House.


Writing about your own experiences: some tips

If you're embarking upon a piece of fiction that deals with your own experiences here are the three golden rules I learned while writing my debut novel:

  1. Don't think about anyone else. That's right, not your Mum, not your English teacher who praised/denigrated your work, not the Editor From the Future who'll declare you the voice of generation. No one is looking and you're probably the only one who cares about what you’re writing so run riot on that first draft. Write absolutely truthfully about anything you feel compelled to. You can always (and absolutely should) edit it later but don't hold back because you're worried about anyone's reaction. Nobody needs to know except you and your hard drive.
  2. Whose story is it? One of the hardest things about writing about my own upbringing was trying to decide whether certain parts were my story, the one I had the right tell, and what truly belonged to others. I navigated this by asking myself with each scene, 'is this my story to tell'? If I felt it wasn't then I omitted it. The best way I can describe it is that my protagonist Janie is mostly me as a child, my thoughts and motivations, the situations I encountered. But the rest is the smoke and mirror techniques of fiction writing - the other characters are composites of many, many people and interactions I observed,  the true stories broken into tiny pieces and glued back together unrecognisably with 'made-up' glue.
  3. This is not 'you' this is you in that narrative, time and place. My novel takes Janie Ryan from the moment she is born to her sixteenth birthday but I was writing it as a twenty-eight year old woman in Vietnam. Whenever I started a scene I literally had to start viewing the world through the eyes of a baby, toddler or teenager. A child of a certain age sees broken glass and they don't think, as I would as an adult, of danger or an act of violence instead they see how it sparkles in the sun. Try to put yourself right inside the head of the 'you' you are writing about...find that prism to view the story through, understand their fears, desires and joys and you will find the voice of your character.

To find out more about Kerry, take a look at her website. Follow her on Twitter here and on Tumblr here

For more advice on writing, take a look at our other articles here