It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to work with the extraordinarily talented authors here at Inspired Quill. But it’s easy to forget that our readers don’t have the same insights into their creative process, professional backgrounds, challenges and triumphs!
Inspiration seems a strong word for what felt like a very muddy process! But I can identify three areas of experience that fed into this novel: the exceedingly long time it took me to make sense of my own painful adolescence; a newspaper report about a middle-aged woman, a high-achieving academic, who had died of anorexia nervosa without any of her colleagues or family being aware of her condition; discovering, halfway through its validity and after travelling to about a dozen different countries, that my passport had the letter M in the box for sex.
I think you need to delve much deeper into character with a novel. The characters in a short story certainly have to be credible individuals, but they don’t come with so much baggage.
Obviously the length is a major distinction: the years (in my case) it takes to write a novel means that you’re a different person when you finish it to who you were at the start. That’s both an advantage and disadvantage: the personal development enables you to see different things with each draft, but it can make it more difficult to maintain the consistency of voice and tone. Of course, that can happen with short fiction too; it’s a wonderful experience to put a problematic short story aside for several months and come back to it with a fresh perspective.
Ha! I have a background in academic research of the randomised controlled trial ilk, but I’m a very lazy researcher when it comes to my fiction. Of course, there were various facts I needed to check, especially regarding medical procedures and legislation, for which, having grown up without it, I’m extremely grateful for the internet. In the seven years since I began Sugar and Snails the issue Diana faces has become much more high profile, so it’s become easier to find the information. Even so, I’ve mostly proceeded on instinct. I didn’t want to write a heavily issue-based story; I wanted my novel to resonate for anyone who’s ever felt uncomfortable in their own skin.
Again, sheer laziness! Or, let’s say that knowing the emotional themes of the novel were going to be challenging enough, I made it easier for myself by choosing settings that were already familiar. I needed Diana to work in a large organisation and I didn’t want to put her in the NHS as it was too close to home. I’d spent a lot of time at Newcastle University – I actually have three degrees from there – as a student and later as external teacher, so I put her there. She actually lives in the house that was mine for over ten years.
As for Cairo, I needed her to go abroad for something that wasn’t available to her in Britain. Morocco was a possibility, but I’d never been there. I spent a month travelling independently in Egypt in the late 1980s. Diana’s visit was more than ten years earlier but I hope it’s sufficiently credible given that the basic sensory experience would be much the same.
Relating Diana’s childhood without giving away her secret until she was ready for me to do so. Originally, I had two additional points of view: those of her parents, struggling with their own relationship as well as a child who didn’t behave the way they expected. But it over complicated what was already a complex story and I was advised to write the whole thing from Diana’s perspective. I’m glad I did, although I still miss the voices of the parents.
The other challenge, which I think is a struggle for many emerging writers, was where to start Diana’s story. We’re conscious of the need to grab the reader’s attention from the first page, but there’s often a lot of information to get across in the early chapters. Originally, I began with Diana’s discomfort on meeting Susan Marlow but, after various rewrites, Dr Marlow dropped back a little into the background, letting Diana’s relationship with Simon take centre stage.
So I’m delighted that early reviews suggest I’ve got both these right.
I hope it contributes to creating credible characters with emotional depth, as well as reflecting the lengths to which we go to defend against uncomfortable feelings. But that’s for others to judge! When I first started taking my fiction seriously, I envisaged it as “me time” and kept it very separate from my day job. Since taking early retirement, the different threads of my life are becoming more integrated, so it might be time to write that novel about psychiatric hospitals. Nevertheless, there’s a lifetime assumption of confidentiality in any of the psy professions, so I can’t draw directly on the stories I’ve heard from my clients, regardless of how interesting they are. But their lives have no doubt impacted on my own, so some of that must come through, albeit filtered through my own experiences.
With each draft of Sugar and Snails, I thought it was finished, so I ended up writing another novel almost concurrently. Underneath is about a man who keeps a woman imprisoned in his cellar. I want to take another close look at it before I hand it over, applying what I’ve learnt through working closely with an editor on Sugar and Snails. Also, after vowing I’d never base my fiction directly on my work as a clinical psychologist, I completed a very rough first draft earlier this year of a novel about the closure of a longstay psychiatric hospital.
A former clinical psychologist, Anne Goodwin has published three books with Inspired Quill, the most recent being a collection of short stories on the theme of identity, Becoming Someone. Find out more on her website annethology or on her IQ author page.