I used to joke that if the mother I was to my first son met the mother I was to my second son in the street, they would have absolutely nothing to say to each other. My parenting styles for each of them when they were tiny were nothing alike. This was partly due to things I’d learned during my first stint of motherhood that came good during my second son’s infancy. But equally, there were things that needed to be approached from an entirely different angle because (surprise!) this next child was nothing like the first.
It’s fair to say that a second book was a lot like a second child in this respect. I knew to expect the nerves at the beginning, the missteps, the actions that brought howling (mine) rather than relief. On a very basic level, I could muddle my way through. I knew, because I’d been there before, that the squalling babe in the Moses basket beside the bed would one day – one day – sleep through the night in his own room. In the same way, I could wince my way through the painful early draft of the novel to reach the stage where I started to see what I had and how to work with it.
But the second novel, like the second baby (and now I think we can all agree I’ve laboured this analogy quite far enough), came with its own personality and needs. The circumstances under which I was writing it were different, too.
I was lucky enough to have been offered a two-book contract by my publishers, which meant that even as my first book was being published, I already had a deadline for my second. There was great security in knowing that this new novel would be published, but the sense of responsibility that a contract and a brick wall of a deadline endowed was frightening at first.
I don’t believe in writer’s block any more than I believe that your characters tell you what to say rather than you grafting day in, day out, to create them. My other day job is teaching. I certainly don’t get to have days there when it’s OK to arrive on campus and decide, ah, this is too hard right now; I’ll just give lectures and workshops a miss until I’m in the right mood. So why should writing be any different?
All the same, when I first started with this new story, I was panicked by the enormity of needing to do it All Over Again. I scowled at the blank page and the blank page scowled back. Impasse.
In his brilliant second memoir, Which Lie Did I Tell?, the novelist and screenwriter William Goldman tells a story of a choreographer who asks his dancers to just get up and start dancing. By watching them, he works out what he does and doesn’t want them to do. Goldman turns this into advice for writing which has become my mantra: ‘write something, so there’s something to change’. Sometimes you don’t know how to say the thing you want to say until you get going, however much you’ve thought about it. Then there it is, and you see that it’s not quite right, or it might be right for somewhere else in the book but not here in this chapter. For me, writing reveals itself only once I can ponder a draft and see my ideas reflected on the page.
So I sat down to write something, so that I had something to change. My first and second novels are notionally nothing alike; Shelter, my debut, is set in the Second World War, How To Belong is contemporary. There are no overlapping characters. But the location is the same; they’re both set in the Forest of Dean, in the rural west of England, and both books tell the story of strangers who end up sharing a home together when perhaps neither of them would have chosen this.
It occurred to me that I could use their homes as a way into my new novel. What if Tessa, the farrier in How To Belong who needs to rent out a room in her cottage, lives in the home formerly occupied by my 1944 characters?
I wasn’t sure, yet, where the plot was going to end up. But I knew that house inside out and upside down, because I’d spent three years inventing it. For this second novel I modernised my fictional cottage; the back was knocked through a bit to make a bigger kitchen/dining room/living space. The parlour, saved for best in Shelter, became the room being rented out to How To Belong’s other protagonist, an idealistic but squeamish butcher called Jo. The garden, leading directly into the forest, became less of a wartime vegetable patch but still reflected the seasons as they slipped across these characters.
It was a starting point. I was off, showing Jo arranging books on the recessed windowsill of her new bedroom, knowing the curve of the wall, the slight dampness of its touch, showing it through her eyes as unfamiliar territory rather than the sacred space saved ‘for best’ in wartime. Crucially, it got me writing, a few hundred words at a time, brick by brick until that first draft was done.
Readers won’t necessarily notice that the cottage is the same, though it’s a tiny Easter egg for anyone who does realise, and a thematic sign of change and stability in a rural community. But that wasn’t the point. It was a way for me to get started; and it shows me, too, that even though these two books are worlds apart, they share the same DNA. You could almost, let’s face it, call them siblings.
(c) Sarah Franklin
About How to Belong:
A moving and courageous exploration of belonging and finding home in a rapidly-changing world from the critically acclaimed author of Shelter.
Jo grew up in the Forest of Dean, but she was always the one destined to leave for a bigger, brighter future. When her parents retire from their butcher’s shop, she returns to her beloved community to save the family legacy, hoping also to save herself. But things are more complex than the rose-tinted version of life which sustained Jo from afar.
Tessa is a farrier, shoeing horses two miles and half a generation away from Jo, further into the forest. Tessa’s experience of the community couldn’t be more different. Now she too has returned, in flight from a life she could have led, nursing a secret and a past filled with guilt and shame.
Compelled through circumstance to live together, these two women will be forced to confront their sense of identity, and reconsider the meaning of home.
‘The kind of book that gives you hope and courage. I loved it’ Kit de Waal
‘Insightful, thoughtful’ Carys Bray
‘I relished every word’ Shelley Harris
‘Such a warm and touching novel’ Lissa Evans
Order your copy online here.