Monday, February 1, 2010

Why I Write

The Editor Unleashed site is currently running an essay competition on the topic "Why I Write". This moved me to ponder my own reasons and rewards for spending so much of my time shaping thoughts into words. Here's the result.

(If anyone would like to vote for my entry, it can be found here)

The pleasure of their company

When I was fifteen, I made my first visit to a farming valley a few miles from my home.

Much of the land had been cleared, but the steeper hills were still covered in forest—bush, as we call it in New Zealand. The bush muffles any sound from outside, and makes it easy to lose the present. Trails are shaped by the feet of generations, finding a path through undergrowth that presses against tall trees. A track will open onto a quiet glade, sunlight filtered green-yellow through fronds of tree-fern.

I was captivated by this place (and by the farmer’s son, who eventually became my husband); later, after the farm had passed out of family ownership, I was captivated by the memories of those who had lived there. They tend to be long-lived, these descendants of pioneers, and their connection with this land lasted more than a century. Tales were told of the days before electricity or engines had reached the valley; when milking was done by hand, and machinery was drawn by horses. A weekly buggy trip to town was an adventure in its own right, dependent on the state of the track and on tides. The valley was isolated, and family all-important.

As I mused on what the land might have looked like a hundred years before, imagination delivered something unexpected: characters to people the valley, my own inventions but surprisingly real to me. And as I thought about these people, how they might have lived and what they might have been like, stories took shape. Took shape and grew, to the point where I conceived the outrageous idea of writing a novel.

It began with the characters; with getting to know them properly. It’s like sitting quietly in a room listening to the conversations of others, occasionally nudging a conversation in a certain direction, and then recording what I’ve learned about these people. Characters and story each grow with the telling—for events shape character, and characters shape events.

For me, one of the joys of writing historical fiction is the excuse to indulge in research. Letters and diaries that have survived in family hands; modest little books published by local history societies; official tomes that when released from the faded pink tape tied around them collapse broken-spined in a halo of brown dust. Then there’s the more active research: any old shack or open-air museum passed on the road must be investigated. I took riding lessons so that I could write with some accuracy of travelling by horseback. I’ve milked a cow by hand; I’ve churned butter; I’ve sewn authentic underwear. I delight in research—and it does need to be a joy in itself, because the vast bulk of what I discover will never make its way onto the page. I want my research to give authenticity, not to weigh down the story.

Some authors write historical fiction about the great and powerful; monarchs and politicians and generals. I write about those whose lives might appear small and narrow; “ordinary” people. I began writing because I wanted to explore what life might have been like for such people; now I write because I miss my characters if I spend too long away from them. I want to know what they’re getting up to; their disappointments and their successes.

My father-in-law died in November 2009, aged 89. Right till the end his mind was sharp, easily able to recall stories from his childhood. A few years ago he visited the valley for the last time, and came back to the city full of how much it had changed. The land has been carved into smaller blocks, and some of the remaining bush cleared. To top it off, there’s now a sealed road with (this was expressed in awed tones) “A white line painted up the middle!

I can’t go back to the valley, because “my” valley no longer exists. But I can return in imagination whenever I want. I write because it takes me back to that special place. I write because I love delving into the past. But most of all I write because it means I can spend time with those lovable, bothersome, and occasionally infuriating characters, some of whom are the children and grandchildren of the ones I first got to know, and all of whom at times take me completely by surprise with what they decide to do. I can enjoy the pleasure of their company.

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