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Dancing From Fiction to Fact with Lissa Oliver

Writing.ie | Magazine | News for Writers | The Big Idea
lissa-oliver

By Lissa Oliver

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I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing fiction – as soon as I read, or had read to me, Enid Blyton’s tales of toyland I was already imagining little stories about my own toys. As soon as I could form letters, I began writing stories. As I grew older and my tastes changed, so did my stories, but the habit of writing them remained a constant.

I eventually completed a novel, and collected the usual bin liner of rejection slips, but as writing was a pleasure I simply kept going and wrote the next one. And the next. And a fourth. The fifth is still in progress. I dabbled briefly with short stories upon joining a writing group, as extracts from novels are not ideal reading material at such things, but development of character is my pleasure and I really need the freedom of 80,000 words plus for that indulgence.

But a strange thing happened during the course of my hobby writing and completion of unpublished novels – I gradually began to earn my living full time as a writer of non-fiction.

I had become a horseracing journalist! Horseracing had always been my other great passion – I had worked with racehorses in my younger days – and I happened to send a letter to a racing magazine, which was published as an article. The editor asked me for more. I sent him more. And other editors asked me for work – and it simply snowballed from there.

As you may have noticed, fiction and journalism are quite different. Just look at the paragraph layouts for a start. The initial switch was a natural and unnoticeable transition. In both cases you are telling a good story and the basic rule of Beginning, Middle, End still applies.

In my case, I had naturally formed a story structure when imparting information in a letter to that first editor. Clearly my fiction background had been of great benefit. When he asked me for more, it was my love of a story that handed me the necessary ‘story’ that journalists always seek. As an ardent fan I could very quickly identify a genuine story, with engaging characters, plot twists and pleasing conclusion. Heart warming, interesting, works for me. I leave the negative aspects to others.

For example, the Soviet racehorse, owned by the entire Soviet nation, who, with his jockey, travelled in a horsebox from Moscow to Paris back in 1965 (a three-week journey, no less) to take on the best in Europe and win enough prize money to finance his three successive trips to America where, in Washington in 1965, ’66 and ’67, he also took on those Imperialist Yankees, too. His story certainly warranted repetition come its 25th anniversary and was one of the first features to get me out there and noticed.

These days I write mainly cover story profiles of leading horseracing professionals. When I sit down in their homes to talk to them, I probably don’t ask the normal journalist questions. I suspect the novelist in me is quietly searching for that interesting story and opportunity to develop character. I wouldn’t make any claim to be good at what I do, it’s just a matter of putting into words what someone else is telling me and my articles are only as good as my subject. They have seen me nominated for Horserace Writer of the Year for seven successive years now at the UK’s prestigious Derby Awards and last year I came oh-so-close when runner-up. My name was again in that golden envelope – but on 2nd December at The Derby Awards, Chris McGrath of The Independent won the plate – a worthy winner.

But I still hadn’t wandered far from fiction. It wasn’t difficult to remain at the laptop after ‘work’ and start tapping away at the next novel. The fact that my novels, bar one Roman history, revolved around horseracing led to an interesting development. Instead of a rejection slip I suddenly got a publishing contract, which without a doubt I owe directly to my ‘day job’ as a journalist. My name carried enough weight within that marketplace to warrant a risk by a publisher. People have asked me if my novels took much research. My instant answer is “none!”; but with hindsight it should probably be “a lifetime’s.” You often hear ‘write what you know’ and the daily lives of racehorses and those who care for them are just second nature to me.

The factual writing was also snowballing down different paths, too. There is only room for one cover profile per issue, so editors looked for industry-related pieces as well, such as what do jockeys earn across Europe? Are the rules regarding horseshoes the same in every country? What are the tax regulations and how do they affect foreign-trained horses? I didn’t know, but I knew who to contact to find out.

Suddenly industry bodies and associations wanted similar work, and because my name is against such works of reference I have fraudulently evolved into ‘An Expert’ (was once pert, but no longer…) the one-stop shop for all the answers. I don’t have any of them, but know where to find them. This has led to me acquiring the role as Consultant to the newly-formed Libyan Horseracing Authority. But can I switch hats back to fiction? Not so easily, now. This very factual work has very little of the story-telling elements I’m used to and it becomes very difficult to get the creative juices flowing again.

Sitting down to chat with a profile subject is still easy – who doesn’t find it easy to chat about one’s favourite topic with a respected figure in that sphere? But getting back home to type it up is harder. Finding the ‘story’ that will make it special sometimes takes much thought. Finding that Beginning is often a toughie, and I always need my opening line upon which to base my closing lines, but once the opening sentence is written, the rest just flows. It’s a matter of getting over that first hurdle of switching off from Reporting and getting back to Creative Writing.

The moral here, I suppose, is that creative writing will stand you in good stead for other forms of writing, but it’s not quite a two-way flow. Had I fallen into journalism from the outset, I doubt that my inner novelist would ever have emerged. Writing has been incredibly lucky for me, in more ways than one, and I’m grateful that I did things in the right order.

(c) Lissa Oliver

Lissa has been a full-time racing journalist for ten years, self-published her first two novels in 2002 and 2004 and signed with publishers Book Republic  in 2010. Her first novel with them, Chantilly Dawns, is a racing thriller.

Lissa’s first novel, Nero The Last Caesar, self-published, was nominated for the James Tait Award, Longman History Award and long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Chantilly Dawns has been nominated for the Golden Dagger Award for Crime Fiction.

Lissa teaches creative writing with the VEC and is an Executive Officer of the Irish Writers’ Union, as well as serving on the Board of Directors of the Irish Copyright Licensing association. Find out more about her at www.lissaoliver.ie

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