I’m sometimes asked if any of my characters are based on real people. Oh yes, I say cheerily, every single one. Before reflecting that writers who don’t include elements of people they know in their work must have far better imaginations than me.
I find people absolutely fascinating; and will ask a hundred questions of anyone. And I’m delighted that, having reinvented myself as a journalist in my fifties, I’ve finally found an excuse for being so nosey.
I love people’s ability to surprise. Everyone’s hidden layers. I recently interviewed a milliner, whose previous job was buying and weighing cattle. When I wrote a blog about my Dorset village, www.19silverlinings.wordpress.com, it emerged there was a Polish engineer working in a shed in his garden, manufacturing parts that were transported to the moon. And then there was the perfectly coiffured mum at the school gates, who turned out to be a trainee cage-fighter. People are just so darned fascinating.
Writing is a way of showing my love for the people I’ve been lucky enough to know. One of my best friends died without having a personal funeral, so including her in my novel, The Fire Tree, was my form of eulogy; where I tried to recreate the feisty, funny, intelligent and compassionate woman she was.
In Shoot the Moon, Tassie (my protagonist) visits Shropshire when her dad falls ill. Alfred, her father, is a combination of both my own father and those of my friends. The ‘hello my lovely,’ is what my dad always says when he greets me. The idea of a gentle, contented farmer is taken from stories a friend used to tell about her dad, while the idea of a lonely father, equally gentle but having to seek solace outside of his marriage came from another. Over the years my friends and I have shared so many stories: of family, lovers, adventures… And luckily none seem to mind when fragments end up in my novels. Although I know they’re reading one of my books when I get a text saying something like ‘Simon the Fireman!!’ – as I did just the other day.
In Shoot The Moon I located parts of the story in Shropshire, where I’ve spent many wonderful weekends. Aged twenty, I met a nurse working in India who originated from there, and we’ve remained firm friends ever since. Sadly there wasn’t the space in this novel for her father; although there are plenty of stories I could use. Not least the wonderful fact that for the last three decades he’s written a letter every Friday and sent it to his four children.
Most of the family live near each other in a small village, and he’ll often pop into my friend’s kitchen to chat; on one occasion after having snuck upstairs to leave a dead mole in a grandchild’s bed. An act I still recall with amusement – not least for the fact that her son didn’t seem in the slightest bit surprised, nor bothered, when he found it at bedtime.
My friend’s brother appears in the novel as Tassie’s brother, Tom: a character formed long ago through stories she recounted about her younger sibling as we travelled on buses through Kerala. And then there’s the novel’s Shropshire hill – with its bench and an oak tree where spirits rest. A hill no doubt inspired by the one owned by this family. Every time I visit, the first thing we do is tramp up to the top of it then sit and catch our breath, surveying the patchwork of greens spreading out for miles below. Creating a sense of tranquillity I hope I’ve replicated.
People also ask if I first visit the places I write about; but often I like to do the opposite. For instance, I’d never been to Skye or Aberfeldy when I wrote about them. And the excitement of visiting afterwards – to see how accurately I’d pictured them – was such a treat. However, if I do know and really love a place then it’s equally pleasurable to write about it. For doing so recreates its joys.
Ask me what someone looks like and I’m terrible. I once reported a weekend intruder at work, saying he was blond, short and stocky. Turned out he was tall, dark – and the company accountant. But ask me about a story someone once told me, or a place I love, and I’ll rarely have forgotten it. And those are the memories that inspire me to write.
This piece first appeared on Between the Lines. Many thanks to Cathy for inviting me along.