By ROBERTA AARONS
Recently, I bumped into two old friends. They are sisters I have known for many years. One said, “I have just finished your book and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
The other then added, “We were arguing about who is Ann and who is Emma.”
Emma and Ann are the two protagonists in my new book, Slippers In The Oven. They are competitive sisters and my friends, two highly intelligent women, had identified so much with my purely fictional characters that they were actually having a dispute about who was who!
They continued their squabble as if I wasn’t there, but I listened and it reminded me why I write novels now. It is for the joy of the reader’s response, especially when they have engaged with my story and enjoyed it, – and even when they are critical. I had created a narrative, with a beginning middle and end. I had invented characters and set them in locations and it had been appreciated. That is what I try to remember when the slog looks long and the blank page even longer. Other magical moments happen. These include when I saw the book for sale in my local book store; when it popped up on the Amazon home page; when I started receiving amazing feedback from people I respect and when I was invited to speak to reading groups and re-establish contact with people I had long lost touch with.
I am frequently asked why I started to write fiction. Words had always been my tool, creative but factual. I’d always written to a brief and often a budget, but never tried fiction.
I had spent my working life in environments where everyone was going to write a book, a poem or a play, or get around to painting or sculpting – one day, once the mortgage was paid off or the kids educated. Advertising, television, training – all industries full of creative, restless souls who promised themselves that would do what they were really on this planet to do eventually.
But then I reached “eventually” and had the time and freedom to make choices. I still wanted to use words, but needed to explore subjects that mattered to me. There was a story I had always wanted to tell and I had learned during my career that the best way to engage attention is to entertain, rather like using comedy to train, music to inform or a mystery to hold interest.
Fiction, therefore, was the obvious answer, but what an enormous challenge to a business writer; how unnerving. However, it was then or never. It took a total attitude change to accept that I could write what I wanted, how I wanted. I didn’t even have to get the tone right for someone else, be it a client or employer. I could take as long as I wanted to and, although I did set myself deadlines, they were mine alone.
My first novel, My Grandfather’s False Teeth, covers one hundred years in London through the eyes of one family of immigrants. I spent five years researching, writing and editing, but every minute was worthwhile when I held the first printed copy in my hands. I was overwhelmed by the sense of achievement and knew it would not be my only novel.
I learned so much during those five years, mainly that I could actually finish a book and a long book at that, which gave me the confidence to write another. I also had systems in place that I developed along the way and will always use. A novel is a lot of words and it is easy, even if writing a contemporary story, to lose your place and to marry someone off before they are born, or to send them to a location that is geographically impossible to get to in a particular time frame. All writers use their own methods. Mine is to chart dates, locations, relationships, ages and significant events. This is the framework that I constantly refer to which is always above my desk and very different from plotting the story. That story is quite clear in my head when I start, but seems to become less clear as I continue. The characters develop and sometimes, they even surprise me with their actions and choices,as these change as the story grows and nuances are often added while editing.
I had the idea for what eventually became Slippers In The Oven during the gruelling editing process for My Grandfather’s False Teeth. It was another compelling idea, an issue I wanted to explore and I couldn’t wait to get started.
I wanted to examine the contemporary topic of the mother in the home versus the career wife. It was an issue for me and remains an issue for my daughter and her friends. I thought that if I could compare the lives of two sisters, each representing one of these situations – a dramatic way to look at the topic. Then, if I could work out a way to have them married to the same man, it would become even more so. Then I decided to place them in a location where they were unable to get away from each other and had to confront their history. I put them together on a cruise, so that they could not escape each other – and the setting would also provide a colourful background and a varied cast of characters. With all those elements, I knew that I had a story that could carry a novel.
Writing it was fun. The historical research for My Grandfather’s False Teeth had been fascinating but a great deal of it had kept me in musty libraries or glued me to the screen, so it was a great joy to send myself to sea every day.
I hope I have taken readers on that voyage with me.
Roberta Aarons is the author of Slippers In The Oven and My Grandfathers False Teeth.