Tuesday, 6 May 2014

What's Your Story?


In her book This is the Secret of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett says that all writers have one basic storyline that they repeat in every book. The characters, locations and problems might change, but the basic storyline is there, underpinning the whole thing. At first I didn’t believe this, but it got me thinking about my books and I started to see that there is some truth to it.

A storyline that I’ve repeated several times already has been that of a woman alone in a strange place, having to find her inner resilience. I used this storyline in Shadows of Yesterday, Hunger of the Wolf and Colton Manor. Pleasure Island also follows this storyline in some ways but in this case two characters are thrown together on a deserted island for a reality TV show.  In Eternal Hunger Lucia leaves her old life behind when she joins the vampires.

Is this a sign that I need to expand my horizons and find something else to write about?  Possibly, but taking characters out of the familiar environment is a common strategy for writers because it means we get to start with a blank canvas. It’s easier to write about new relationships than it is about ones with a long history. Putting characters in an unfamiliar place and confronting them with all the challenges this entails also brings out their strengths and weaknesses.

These are all good reasons why many writers use this storyline and if you think about it, so many books and movies are based on this premise. For me it’s also a psychological thing. Being an introvert I crave solitude and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I put my characters in the position of being alone. It’s also no accident that my characters are often involved in creative careers and that they frequently escape somewhere beautiful to focus on their work because this is something I’d love to do. Who wouldn’t want to write in a cabin in the woods or look out at an empty windswept beach from the window of their study in an historic mansion? There’s definitely an element of wish-fulfilment involved. I’ve moved quite a few times throughout my life and had to start again in a new place so this definitely comes into play in my writing.

We write about what we know, and even when we think we’re writing about something completely separate from our experience, the emotional struggles and heartbreaks are often our own. I find this both comforting and disconcerting. The upshot of this knowledge about the single storyline is that I’m probably going to make a conscious effort NOT to use it in the future. It's handy though to recognise what drives you and what to avoid if you don’t want to become stale.

What’s your basic storyline and what does it say about you?

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