Write what you know about. How often have would be authors been told that? What often isn’t said, is that you need to know about something that other people want to read about!
It can be about your own life but writing classes are full of people writing memoirs and unless you’re Julia Gillard (or equivalent) no one other than your closest friends and family (and some of them under sufferance) are going to want to hear about your job, divorce and children.
Or it can be fantasy. Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. Not about the author’s lives, though I rather imagine in most cases (DonnaTartt and The Secret History being the exception, or I am assuming so given she was young, but then so was MJ Hyland when her first book came out, and having heard her speak, she had packed more life experience into her childhood than most of us will ever), having had a rich life to draw on for characters and vignettes doesn’t hurt.
Fantasy didn’t work for me. Nor, at 15 years old, did imagining what it would be like to be in a boarding school or falling in love. Naivety jumped off the page—and I even knew it then.
So after I became a psychiatrist, after I had seen a fair selection of lives very different to mine, I started to think…maybe I do have something to say. For many years I did in nonfiction. Research and opinion pieces about improving outcomes for women and their families after having a child and where things don’t always go well covered an array of topics: abuse as a risk factor (which was the topic of my MD—a 100,000 word tome), use of medication, screening and treatments. But as Jeff Kennett once told me “all academics want is more articles for the CV” and while this was what I was accumulating, it wasn’t all I wanted.
I wanted to write. And I wanted some of what I have learnt and seen and felt and agonised over to be read and thought about by more people than have ever picked up my MD (I figure four people—me, my supervisor and the two examiners!).
For ethical reasons I cannot write about the actual cases I have been involved in. And I didn’t want to write about other real cases because people’s stories are theirs anyway and they deserve to be allowed to heal and move on. Journalists and wonderful writers like Helen Garner do rake up this stories from time to time, and in public interest it is important to do so, but it is not a role I wish to take on. Instead I can bring to fiction my understanding of the why and the how, of both patient and psychiatrist … and a bit of knowing myself what it is like to be a mother.
From Agatha Christie, to the romantic suspense of Victoria Holt in my teens, I spent my twenties reading widely, and still do. I read most Booker and Pulitzer prize winners (I read The Goldfinch before Donna Tartt received the latter, and have to say I far preferred The Secret History), my favourite book is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden … but I also read to wind down (I watch very little television), and clock up at least 2 psychological or crime thrillers a week. And have done for years.
I started writing seriously with a psychological drama and when two got knocked back I went off to practice…and wrote several erotic romances which were published by Siren Bookstrand. It was a wonderful apprenticeship, because even though the editing help is limited (and nothing like the level needed for mainstream fiction as in Medea’s Curse, accepted by Text and out in January), they give you enthusiastic feedback and wonderful covers (I have ten with half naked men on my wall). Better still, it gave me encouragement while I practised. If you look at most of the other Siren books, the “story” is very limited (if at all). But mine? Murder, drug running, kidnapping, revenge plots using biomedical techniques across the ages…loads of fun, but also working out how to put plots together and hold the readers interest.
Which brings me to where I am now. First psychological thriller out next year, uses my psychiatric expertise, alongside my plotting practice and reader’s eye. My heroine is flawed but passionate, my characters all flawed but inspired by elements of the many hundreds and thousands of families I have seen. It is foremost a thriller and aimed at entertainment. But I’d like to think that will make a few people shed a tear and a few more think harder about some of the issues raised. If not—just enjoy!