I am currently working on the latest DCI Jack Harris novel and already, 11,000 words in, I am creating scenes full of raw emotion and human passions ranging from rage to grief.
Now, I have not experienced all the situations I depict but I’ve gone through a lot of scenarios that were similar. For me, the line between real life and fiction is an indistinct one.
When I was writing my first novels as a teenager, I tended to write about aliens and war zones and my father’s constant mantra was ‘write about what you know’. They were wise words - wise words now, wise words then - but the problem was that I did not know anything. I was a schoolboy, what could I know?
Now, on the slide towards sixty, I know so much. Too much in many ways. I know what deep personal loss feels like, know what it is like to be diagnosed with illnesses, know what it is like to see loved ones suffer, know what it is like to be made redundant by employers. To me, it is inevitable that those experiences inform my writing.
The thing that has also concentrated my mind on this subject at the moment is a talk that I am preparing, details to be announced later, which will include reference to my novel The Secrets Man (The Book Folks).
The Secrets Man can trace its beginnings to one of the most difficult experiences of my life, the serious illness experienced by my father. Ironically, the very man who suggested I write about what I know.
As the illness, and the dementia that accompanied it, took control of his mind, he disappeared into another world, one where nothing was as it seemed. He would hallucinate in ways that were frighteningly real to him. And to his family.
And as I sat at his bedside day after day, I started to look around the hospital ward; Dad slept a lot during the illness which gave me the time to examine my surroundings. What I saw was five other beds, five other patients, each of them in a world of their own. A man murmuring to someone who was not there, another man directing traffic that did not exist, a third conversing with someone he was convinced was his wife but wasn’t. And as I watched, the idea for a novel started to roll out.
My idea was this, and this is where fiction departs from fact. What if one of the patients in a fictional hospital was an elderly villain who had been, in his heyday, the henchman of one of the city’s gang leaders? What if the elderly villain was known as The Secrets Man because he was the one entrusted with the secrets by the gang leader? What if, as illness unhinged his mind, his tongue was loosened and he started revealing those secrets? What if in the next bed was a retired detective who knew exactly what he was hearing and viewed the comments differently than those who simply wrote them as the ramblings of an ill old man? And what if one of the officer’s visitors was my main character DCI John Blizzard? Where would the story go from there? Who would want the old man silenced?
Of course, that’s where the fiction well and truly takes over. None of the events in the novel took place. Characters were created, scenarios invented, incidents dreamed up, but at its heart was truth and that truth kept coming back to inform my writing. Every time I stalled in the writing process, all I had to do was cast my mind back to the three months my Dad was in hospital and the inspiration flowed.
Let me say immediately that this was not an easy thing to do. Dad’s illness was a horrible, traumatic, painful time in the lives of those who loved him and basing a novel on it was the furthest thing from my mind. But, as any writer will tell you, ideas have a life all of their own and when they come knocking you can’t really turn them away. Before I wrote the novel, I felt I had to ask my family for their approval. What happened to Dad was real and painful and I did not want to exacerbate that even though what I had penned was a work of fiction. They agreed I should write it; they know how the writer’s mind works.
The novel does draw heavily on those experiences, though, and that is where I think writers benefit from drawing on real life. Yes, you change places and people, embroider scenarios etc but at heart it’s as real as it comes.
You can buy The Secrets Man at
Add a Comment