Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Write What You Know

How many times have we been urged to “write what we know” And how many times do most of us think, who could possibly be interested in our humble origins or even where we live now? I certainly feel that way about where I was born in Old Basing, Hampshire.

It was only as an adult that I realized what a significant role the village played in holding out against Cromwell during the English Civil War 1642-1651. Defended by Sir Marmaduke Rawdon (don’t you just love that name?) Basing House was the largest private house in the whole of England until it was razed to the ground in October 1645.

As kids, my sister and I used to play in the secret underground tunnels among the ruins. Didn’t everyone have a ruined castle in their back garden? We also kept our horses at the nearby mill and went to barn dances at Basing Barn where the canon ball holes can still be seen today.  Oh - and take a look at the painting above. You can see the barn - top center. We took it all for granted.

Then, we moved to the West Country that even now, seems fifty years behind the times. Devon has many quirks and customs from worm charming to tar barrel racing—all, completely normal to me.

My husband was born and bred in Sherman Oaks, California. On his first trip to England he couldn’t get over the fact that sheep hung out all day in fields. He’d watch them grazing for hours. He was equally fascinated by sheep poop. Yes, he was a real city boy. My world was alien to him. And of course, I can’t even begin to start talking about how weird Los Angeles is to me … that would fill a book all by itself.

So it was with great interest that I went to hear author Johnny Shaw speak at the Friends of Mystery meeting in Portland. Johnny’s topic was setting. He believes that environment is character. For example, setting a murder in a desert town where the main source of employment comes from a maximum security prison says it all. Imagine growing up there!

Johnny’s debut novel, Dove Season, (one of many of his books), is set where he grew up in the Imperial Valley. I thought Mexicali and Calexico were pure fiction. Honestly, I had never heard of those places before. As a Brit, life on the Southern California-Mexican border couldn’t be more foreign. In fact, Johnny mentioned that many Hollywood blockbusters have been filmed in the sand dunes close by because of their unearthly appearance – Star Wars, Independence Day and … The Men Who Stare at Goats to name just a few.

I was utterly captivated by Johnny’s tales of growing up on a beet farm opposite a bar. He said that “going to the bar for a scrap” was just part of an evening’s entertainment and wasn’t considered violent at all. He said that as a boy, he watched a kid on TV “take out the trash” and was consumed with envy. For him, taking out the trash was a four-hour ordeal. There was no handy trash bin that was picked up by the City. Everything had to be burned. Then there was the bilingual parrot … Just these little details made me buy his book. I wanted to learn about life in the Imperial Valley and the people who lived there and I was not disappointed. I loved Dove Season!

So, setting is so much more than describing the scenery and the weather. It’s about the tiny details in our lives and backgrounds that make us, and the worlds that we inhabit, unique.

It really is a case of “write what you know.”

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