I can’t believe that the release of my novel, Baby up the Chimney, is only a week away! It’s taken ten years, since I first wrote a short story with the same name, to get this book onto the shelves of Amazon, Kobo, Apple, Barnes & Noble and lots of other stores. I don’t mean that I’ve been writing the same book incessantly, squirrelled away like a little hermit (and I say ‘little’ because I just about scrape five feet tall on a good day!). No, the original version of this book was originally written a number of years ago, although it has changed a lot since that initial draft.
I almost couldn’t explain it, even to myself, but this book became immensely personal in many ways. I obsessed over it for years, nothing I wrote made me feel like it was good enough, and I put it down and restarted it half a dozen times before biting the bullet the year, ripping it apart and rebuilding it, chapter by chapter. And then it dawned on me what the problem had been: it had begun to incorporate all sorts of things that meant a great deal to me, or I had experienced in some way, big and small, even though I fictionalised each one and placed them in the hands of completely fictional characters. And if you read the book, you’ll probably be very glad that they are fictional.
One of the major themes of this book is motherhood – actual, impending, miscarriage and loss. My own relationship with my mum is absolutely amazing, open and honest, and so is the one I have with my kids, but I wanted to explore an alternative version of a mother-daughter relationship. So I twisted everything about my own relationships into a mother-daughter relationship with tensions, secrets, lies and trauma, the kind any person can only hope never to experience.
Within that tension, I found myself exorcising a few of my own ghosts, however. In late 2002 I had a miscarriage, and it is something I have never got over. I blamed myself, even though I did nothing wrong, and the guilt and the self-blame became something I lived with daily. Without giving too much away about the book, this kind of loss does feature very heavily in the female characters, although the essence of my own feelings has been heavily fictionalised and distilled into two characters and their very, very different lives to my own. But this became the thing I obsessed about, dreamt about, and why I struggled to complete the book, I think. I was finding it difficult to let go – of my memories, my guilt and self-blame, and ultimately the story itself.
What I also noticed as I was rewriting, and especially when I was editing, was that snapshots of experiences I’ve had managed to filter their way into the book. For instance, I remember vividly what it was like to go into the shoe shop and get measured for new shoes, so the first draft contained a massive section all about my character, Julia, being fitted for a pair of shoes. Luckily for you, I trimmed that right down. When I say it was long, it went on for about six pages!
I think that, besides the memory and the emotions of my own miscarriage, one of the biggest things that fed into this book that was based on personal experience was a fear of spiders. I gave my character David a morbid fear of arachnids which was a useful plot device, but the first version of the book took this much further, as David recalls, in extreme and painful detail, an experience my ex-husband and I had shortly after we moved into our first rented house. This house was built in the late 1800s. It had a brick fireplace, a loft we daren’t ever venture into for fear of what might be up there, windows that were painted shut, an airing cupboard which contained a tank which flooded the cupboard every time the immersion heater was switched on, and a front door that the woodlice loved. Oh yes, and spiders. Lots of them. And there was one particular spider that was bigger than the rest…
The following is how this experience made it into the first draft of the book. While the characters themselves and the context to this scene are fictional, the spider part, the events after we spotted it, is completely true (and the feelings of the characters about the aforementioned arachnid are very much mine):
He honestly had never been truly arachnophobic, not even after Paul’s juvenile stunts – he told himself this regularly – until that day in the kitchen a week after they had moved in. Julia had been in the kitchen, making some sandwiches next to the cooker and he had been engrossed in the Vauxhall Viva manual which would hopefully explain where the oil on the road came from every time he moved the car.
“Do you want a cup of tea with this?” Julia had said, nodding towards the sandwich.
“Um, yeah, okay,” He had replied, glancing up and smiling at Julia’s underskirt showing about an inch below the rest of her dress. She would be so mad if she realised. As his eyes drew in a sweeping motion about the room to return to the confusion of the diagrammatic nonsense which was meant to represent the manual’s car engine, he spotted something large – about the size of one of Julia’s gloves, in the right angled crevice between the kick-board near the cooker and the one which veered to the left towards the sink. He was just about to mention it to Julia when the black glove grew tendrils. Their indiscriminate loops slowly began to morph into definite shapes, and the whole black mass of fur began to move itself slowly away from the corner and out onto the first printed tile on the black and white lino floor.
“Julia,” he said, the calm in his voice wavering every time he swallowed. “Come over here a minute.”
“I will, when I’ve finished making your dinner,” she responded. “What’s so important.” She laughed momentarily at his still and grey face. “Do you want me to try and figure out what you’re supposed to do?” Her face stiffened as he stood up. “What’s the matter?”
He hadn’t been able to help himself. His eyes had not left the black crawling nightmare since he had realised it was moving. Very slowly – at the moment. Julia took one look at where his eyes seemed to be stuck to the floor.
“Bloody hell!” He could not remember ever seeing her move so fast, before or since. Making more noise than a cacophony of every sub-species of primate communicating simultaneously through the trees, she yanked a chair out from under the dining table and stood on its seat, her back to the creeping arachnid. “Get rid of it!” she screamed. “Where the hell did it come from?”
What could he do? He struggled out of his frozen state and shook all over. He had absolutely no idea that spiders in England could ever grow to be that big. How many decades had the thing been creeping around this house? Eating all the other spiders. Anything that moved. Oh, he felt sick. Edging around the kitchen, he grabbed a washed-up and stored plastic Christmas pudding basin from the nearest cupboard. He had no idea what he was going to do. He just knew he could not look at this thing while he made his mind up. It was as big as his outstretched hand. Throwing the pudding basin on the thick black body, he searched around for some way of scooping it up from underneath its current temporary prison. He found a thin tray and turned back to brave the scooping and removal episode which he knew was coming next. Julia was still standing on the chair, making awful noises and refusing to look.
When he had looked down at the floor, the spider’s legs were sticking out of the edge of the bowl and the whole thing – spider and bowl – were moving steadily across the floor. It had made its way into the middle of the room, and the legs were still bending, crawling, trying to give him a heart attack. It was lucky that Julia was not in a position to see: David’s shoes did their job. One lucky aim with the left shoe and the pudding bowl came off; before the gigantic arachnid could scuttle away to torment them from another hidey-hole, David’s other shoe came down hard – and again – and again.
It had taken Julia over half an hour to bring herself to look, and another half an hour to wash the mess from the lino.
You have no idea how terrified my ex-husband and I both were after that – but if you’re arachnophobic, you can probably guess!
So, for me, writing about what you know can mean internalising vividly remembered experiences and snapshots of other, less traumatic memories and turning them into the essence of something that my fictional characters have to deal with in their daily lives. I know that if I write with the integrity of the feeling the experience conjures up inside, then however fictionalised the character, the events or the places, the feelings expressed are authentic, because they come from a place unique to me: my heart.
I feel like these posts should have been entitled, ‘Writing what I know’, as I’m describing lessons I’m learning along my writing journey, and things I’m noticing about my work. My next full novel is a crime story set in the 1700s and about a really horrible hangman, so I’ll be interested to see if I end up writing what I know into that one!
You can read ‘Write what you know, Part 1’ here.
Find out more about Baby up the Chimney here.