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Plagiarising Your Own Life

Before Unforgettable is officially released tomorrow, I wanted to write a little bit about how far writers use their own lives when it comes to creating the fictional ones we read.

As writers we’re often told to write about what we know, but sometimes that can get a little tricky. I don’t know about other authors but when I was first given that oft quoted piece of advice, I wondered what on earth I was ever going to write about. I’ve been married to the same man for twenty years, I was a teacher and I have two children. I haven’t done anything to change the world and I spend most of my time sat behind my desk writing. My life just isn’t that exciting! However, any incident, no matter how boring, can be turned into an interesting scene in a book and every person you meet, every conversation you overhear and every place you visit can be useful.

When I began the MA I wanted to use the first year to start writing a book. The initial idea for it came to me when I went to Beth Chatto Gardens, near where I live. It’s fairly small relative to many gardens, but I thought it was simply beautiful. I had a vision of someone walking in, seeing someone in such glorious surroundings and falling instantly in love. I had no idea what happened next but I knew I needed to convey the beauty of the place and the effect it had had on me. This scene was the result. Like me, Grace is a writer and what she makes Tom do is basically what I did in order to be able to write about the gardens properly. Tom describes the flowers in a very simplistic fashion until Grace makes him view them the way she does.

‘OK. Look around you and tell me what you see.’

‘Flowers, trees, the ponds,’ I started listing things and she laughed.

‘What can you hear?’

‘You, the ducks.’

‘Right. Now close your eyes. OK, tell me what you can hear.’

I told her about the drone of the helicopter I had noticed earlier, that was still marking lazy circles in the sky above, the muffled sounds of the cars as they passed along the lane outside. Encased within that were smaller sounds, the rapid fire rattle of a duck’s wings in flight and a myriad of other sounds. I described them all until I felt her light touch on my shoulder.’

‘Now open your eyes and tell me again what you see.’

When I opened my eyes, I did not see the clashing colours of nerve-jangling iridescence that had greeted me on my arrival. Instead, it was the paint palette of an artist in his or her green period – from the almost silver green of the Jack Frost to the purplish-green tinge of the ornamental sweet potato. The splashes of colour I had observed on my arrival transformed themselves into silky soft shades of butter, honey, marmalade, cyclamen, watermelon, lilac and periwinkle; each one angrily shaking its heads at my former simplistic descriptions. She nodded her head as I spoke, a knowing smile illuminating her face with a healthy glow.

‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘That’s why I come here; I can’t imagine those descriptions, I have to experience them, or the words just don’t come.’

However, I didn’t want to set this part of the story in East Anglia – the action takes place much further north in Blackpool and the surrounding area – so instead of changing location, I just didn’t name the garden and moved it to an unspecified location somewhere near Poulton. All of a sudden, it becomes fiction!

It’s not just places you can plagiarise either. I needed to create some early background for the character of Grace, who is a ballroom dancer, but it had to be told through Tom’s eyes, as he was narrating the story. For this, I went back to my teens and early twenties and thought about what it was like going into Blackpool Tower Ballroom for the first time with my (now) husband. I’ve been going in there since I was six weeks old and in the 1980s all the regulars knew each other. My husband has never got over a lady coming up to me and tutting about the fact I’d put weight on since she’d last seen me – I was in fact five months pregnant at the time – because I had no idea who she was. Apparently, because she knew my family, it was socially acceptable to comment on my weight. When I informed her of my ‘interesting’ condition, she smiled, patted my hand and said, ‘Well that explains it then’ and walked off to talk to my mum. I wanted to get across to the reader that sense of separateness that happens the first time you meet people who have known your partner for years.

It seemed that everyone in the room knew Grace and her brother and in between dances I would be introduced as ‘Grace’s friend Tom’ to the myriad of people who came to speak to them, clearly angling for an introduction to the interloper into the group.

‘I’ve been coming in here all my life,’ Grace said by way of explanation. ‘I grew up in front of these people, so naturally they want to know who you are. Phil knows my parents,’ she added, as the organist smiled and nodded at her between songs. ‘I’ve got so many photos of him holding me as a child and somewhere I still have a wind up clock toy he gave me when I was about three.’

I excused myself to go to the bathroom, feeling a tiny bit overwhelmed. It was as though I’d fallen through the Looking Glass into a bizarre and unfamiliar world where it was normal to know everyone else’s business and it felt like I was frantically trying to catch up with a runaway train that never seemed to slow down. It was intrusive, yet everyone else thought it was perfectly reasonable.

Yes – those photos exist and yes, I still have that wind up clock (if you look very closely in one of the photos below you can see it clutched in my hand!). Unlike Grace, however, I know exactly where mine is. It sits on my writing desk.

I know that when people who know me in real life read ‘Unforgettable’ they will recognise lots of it and will ask, ‘is X based on ______’. The simple answer is yes. And no. Whilst I’ve drawn on a lot of my life for inspiration, no event is exactly as it happened in real life and others are completely fictional. In the same way, no character is based on a single person. Each one is a composite of people I know, with a healthy dose of fiction thrown into the mix for good measure. As for me – there are elements of me in Olivia, Grace and Tom and yet not one of them is completely autobiographical.

Events in your life can also be used to great effect to add depth and emotion to your plot. When my editor read the book, one of her favourite scenes was the one I’ve shared below. She thought it was hilarious when I told her that the basic story was true – my dad lost control of his model boat when the joystick got stuck and my mum did race madly around Fleetwood boating lake to stop anyone getting hurt! The main difference is that my mum would barely have been in her forties at the time. The boat, unfortunately, is long gone, but I do still have the flag that graced the top of it!

Olivia and I had driven to Cleveleys with the children, our bikes strapped to the rear of the car, then cycled up the promenade to Fleetwood. As it was five miles each way, in spite of Theo’s protests that he could cycle himself, we’d attached the trailers to the back of the bikes and fastened all three children into them, along with a picnic lunch. We ate it sitting on the grass in the Marine Gardens and then took the children for a walk around the nearer of the two boating lakes to allow them to stretch their legs before we put them back in the trailers for the return ride. As we reached the hump of the bridge, we heard someone shouting.

‘Don’t touch the propeller, don’t touch it!’

We looked down to see a middle-aged woman sprinting around the edge of the lake, waving her arms at a group of children who had gathered on the far bank. On the near bank, where she had presumably set off from, a man stood, frantically jabbing at a remote control, a look of panic on his face. On the concrete path that circled the lake, a sleek white boat lay on its side, its propeller still spinning wildly and a full-throated roar was coming from its engine. The children who had congregated round it were obviously torn between the excitement of seeing the boat launch itself out of the water onto the surrounding path and the alarm of having it land so close to them. It was to this group the woman was shouting. Just as she reached them, her husband – for so we assumed the man to be – managed to get the remote to respond and the engine sputtered and fell silent. The woman sank to the floor in evident relief and gave her husband a weak thumbs up. The orange flag bearing the boat’s name hung limply as the man, who had by now walked round to join his wife, tucked the boat under one arm. The other went round her and they returned to their car, all the while carrying on an animated discussion.

Ultimately, what I hope this shows is that whilst my life might not have involved anything truly momentous, all the little things can be combined to create what is hopefully, an interesting story, with believable locations and fully realised characters. Tom, Olivia, Grace and their surrounding cast certainly came to life for me when I was writing them and I truly hope they do the same for you as you read about them.

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