Val McDermid spoke these words when interviewing a fellow author on BBC 4 Front Row recently; ‘That’s what we authors do,’ she said, ‘plunder our own lives.’ And I was thrilled to hear her say this. For that is exactly what I do.
Initially I was surprised as her novels are psychological thrillers, always featuring nasty crimes. But, of course, she’s not talking about her own experiences as such. However she does say that Jacko Vance, one of her villains who featured in ‘Wire in the Blood’, is based on her direct experience of interviewing Jimmy Savile.
Deborah Bruce, the writer of ‘The House They Grew Up In’ recently performed at Chichester Festival Theatre, said in the Post Show Talk that she overheard two people talking in a café which inspired the main characters in the play.
For most authors there is nothing overt. My characters are never anyone I know; merely composites or attributes of people I’ve encountered. Soon enough, however, they become themselves, taking on their own personalities, pushing their own story forward.
I have already written in another blog of how Leonard and Monica appeared as the Lego couple in a camper van. Their story had to be written though I’d never met them. In ‘Incident on the Line’, Greta’s three boyfriends before she meets Roger, started as young men of whom I had a brief knowledge, but all too soon they took on a life of their own. Paul I could see as a string puppet, the pierrot in Van Gogh’s painting Les Saltimbanques; Max, effete in his silk dressing robe worshipping his dead father; Angus, though, was entirely himself and I love him especially. And that is what happens, whether good or bad, to me they are real people and there is no arguing with them.
Place, the settings of scenes, is all important. Unless I can visualise where my characters are, am there with them, nothing will happen. I have plundered my birthplace, Cambridge, sights in London that I have either known or can go to explore. It is feeling the atmosphere which is essential, knowing what the stonework looks like when the sun hits it – the Senate House in Cambridge – or sitting in a Paris café and seeing a gold plaque on a wall in a back street. Grist to the mill!
The novel I’m writing at the moment covers the 2nd World War, the home front. I want to go back to a Lyons Corner House, sit in the gallery at the National Gallery while Myra Hess plays a lunchtime concert. There is plenty of research to be done.
It is digging up the emotions that our characters feel which is possibly where we have to plunder most deeply. Imagining what you would do or think after you had smothered your mother? How you would react on learning that your child had committed suicide?
If you know your characters, where they are and how they feel, you hope that your readers will be intrigued and want to read on.