WHY was probably one of my first spoken and subsequently, overly used words, so it should come as little surprise when I say that I always ask WHY when I read a novel. Why did the author write that book, use that particular subject, what where their motivations? Learning a writer’s inspiration can change how you view a book, as I just found out while listening to Markus Zusak talk about his inspiration for The Book Thief, which quite frankly, I have been struggling to get through, and was about to give up on and just go see the movie, but am now motivated to finish.
This brings me to what I think is one of the most misunderstood axioms for writers … ‘write what you know’. Some people take this quite literally and suggest that you should restrict your writing to YOU, your background, your experiences, your locations. Given that this has worked for notable noble prize laureates such as Alice Munro (Canadian) and V.S. Naipaul (Trinidadian), who am I to argue with such words of wisdom, but argue, I will. Earlier this year, as I grappled with the intricacies of the mine field that is the British class system during preliminary research for my second novel, I was advised to stick to writing about my reality, a Trinidadian living in Canada. My gut reaction was instantaneous … how boring! But that itself reveled something about me. I am not interested in the here and now. I live for adventure, another place, another time. The past however, beckons more than the future, my logic geared personality perhaps unable to deal with fantasy, being more grounded in reality, just not the reality of my own life and time.
Little surprise then that my first novel is strictly historical set in three different countries and cultures, none of them my own. However, I did write what I know as the protagonist is my personality type, the daughter of a physician, who ends up traveling to a tropical island with such a strong presence in the narrative, that the new working title of my novel is Fair is this Land, an English translation of the original Arab name for Zanzibar.
As a writer, you draw on past life experiences for emotion and human interaction, no matter whether you are in the past, present or future, for as much as we like to see differences, the human condition is a common one. We would all feel the same when faced with hunger, poverty, fulfilment or untold wealth, no matter the time, place or culture. What differs is how we would react to these situations and as a writer, you have to be able to capture those differences to weave a compelling, conflict driven story, for as I have read time and again, without conflict, there is no story. While some would suggest that a life filled with more personal conflict should make for more compelling stories, I would argue that the mark of a great writer is one who can draw on their limited experiences, and use observation and inference to express stronger human reactions and emotion in their writing.