From time to time I find myself in front of a group of writers or would-be writers, dispensing what they clearly hope will be some wisdom. As a jobbing scribe, who’s been a fair way around the publishing block, I can make a reasonable fist of holding forth on characterisation and dialogue, plotting and planning, deadlines and discipline (the trick here is to do what I say, not what I do) and the wonderful, whacky world of the freelance hack. But I always feel a bit of a fraud when lecturing on where to get ideas from, because the truth is I have the imagination of a pea. “Write what you know”, they told me long ago, and write-wot-I-knew, I have!
Over the course of writing my four novels ( and a hundred-odd short stories before that) I have simply sat down and typed out just about everything that has ever happened to me, joining dozens of near-suicidal moments into a stab at romantic comedy or scraping the family barrel of dysfunction in a vain attempt to bring gravitas. When really stuck, I have descended into fantasy (why, oh why, don’t men like that exist in real life?) but mostly I have drawn on my own life’s motley tapestry.
It started when my son, then aged two and a half, locked me in a cupboard. Nose pressed to the keyhole, I had to talk him through dialling 999 so the police could break in and let me out. This became a short story (there was the smashed glass to pay for) as did the occasion when I reversed into a parked car (the price of a headlight and bent bumper), the day I flooded the kitchen (a new washing machine) and several of the more heated of my domestics (that’ll teach him!). By the time I got to my first novel, I was used to trawling my life for material. The near-bankruptcy, the duff sex, the hangovers, the time I first discovered I needed a face-lift , in it all went. Along with, in the case of that first book – Raising the Roof – my ill-advised efforts to break into the buy-to-let market, which is how I’d been spending my days, when I wasn’t breaking things.
And I think that’s what probably sold it.
At the time there were lots of books about, dealing with wanting a fab new man and drinking too much and feeling unattractive (and there still are!) but not another one I knew of, that told the tale of a woman buying a wreck of a house and converting it into flats to rent out. “Rising Damp meets Real Women” as I coined it for my sales pitch. In each of my novels I have written about things that have happened to me (or, in the case of my second novel, happened to my racier girlfriends – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) but I have each time included an experience that wouldn’t have happened to everyone.
My second novel, Perfect Alibis, was about infidelity – surely the most well-worn theme of them all – but it had an unusual angle. It featured an agency that provided alibis for women having affairs (they really exist now but I promise you I thought of it first!) My third book again featured unfaithfulness but it is also the tale of three women running a wine bar, as I did for a while. My fourth Prime Time, has a newly-separated heroine (or “yawn”, you might well say) but she has savage PMT and ends up on TV.
It is hard to be totally original. In fact bearing in mind there are only supposed to be about seven plots in the whole world, we might rephrase that as damn near impossible. And I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with writing on familiar themes. What (hopefully!) makes each book by each different author fresh and different is that author’s unique voice, own quirky attitude to life’s great milestones and the combination of characters and subplots.
Other books aside from my One Glass is Never Enough (and believe me, it often wasn’t) have been written I’m sure, about running a bar, but as anyone reading this who has ever worked in a pub will appreciate – the comings and goings of a cast of regulars (not to mention what they tell you when three sheets to the wind) is an absolute gift when it comes to material and MY regulars were different people from yours. Thus my book is going to be different too. Nothing Is Wasted, is my mantra. Good comes from Bad. Every Cloud etc. However embarrassing, frustrating, upsetting or downright terrifying the disaster is at the time, it will serve its purpose. Don’t cry over spilt milk, write about it… All maxims which have kept me going through many a fine crisis. Even if, trilling away hysterically like an ageing Pollyanna, I have sometimes found it hard to visualise exactly how certain misfortunes might fit in…That afternoon I thought I was going to be punched on camera? The morning I woke up after testing out botox for a newspaper column to find I had one eyebrow significantly higher than the other? The endless months when I had such raging hormones that I’d drop things, scream a lot and occasionally hurl the dinner across the kitchen? Even for me, weaving a heart-warming romance from that little lot seemed a tall order. I wrote two non-fiction books (Wannabe a Writer and Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of) while I thought it over, until eventually inspiration struck.
The result, as they say, is in a good bookshop or somewhere online near you…. Prime Time by Jane Wenham-Jones is out now in paperback (Accent Press £7.99.) And I have a new blog to celebrate at janewenhamjones.wordpress.com. Here’s the blurb:
Laura Meredith never imagined herself appearing on TV– she’s too old, too flabby, too downright hormonal, and much too busy holding things together for her son, Stanley, after her husband left her for a younger, thinner replacement. But best friend Charlotte is a determined woman and when Laura is persuaded on to a daytime show to talk about her PMT, everything changes. Suddenly there’s a camera crew tracking her every move and Laura finds herself an unlikely star.But as things hot up between her and gorgeous TV director, Cal, they’re going downhill elsewhere. While Laura’s caught up in a heady whirlwind of beauty treatments, makeovers and glamorous film locations, Charlotte’s husband, Roger, is concealing a guilty secret, Stanley’s got problems at school, work’s piling up, and when Laura turns detective to protect Charlotte’s marriage, things go horribly wrong.The champagne’s flowing as Laura’s prime time TV debut looks set to be a hit. But in every month, there’s a “Day Ten” …