Aspiring authors are often told to ‘write about what you know.’ Advice that seems to have been taken by the successful ones in patchy form, as far as I can see. It is true Dickens used his childhood experiences when writing several of his novels – David Copperfield, for
example. But he also wrote about social issues that concerned him, like the education system in Hard Times.
I don’t think JK Rowling had much experience as child in a boarding school for wizards. Nor, before writing her adult books, did she spend much time working in a detective agency. And it is probably her concern with social issues that prompted the writing of A Casual Vacancy, rather than personal experience.
Mostly, both writers have used their imaginations, skillful plotting, and some judicious research, to get under the skin of their characters and craft stories and scenarios to captivate their readers. As a result, their book sales have been the envy of most of the rest of us humble pen wielders.
When I started writing Girl Friends, it was based on my own work experience, and a young woman (Courtney) who was a combination of several girls I had met over the years. All of them wanted to do well and move on from their rotten home lives. In most cases they failed, and found themselves dragged back down – usually because they got pregnant in their teens by someone who would prove to be a hopeless partner and father. It was good to write about someone who looked as if she was going to make it – and being a work of fiction, of course she does!
Her friend Grace, however, is much more a creation from my imagination. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be born into her circumstances and how it was she would fall in with someone like Kal and end up being trafficked for sex. When I first attempted to get the book published, some publishers were afraid to handle it: child sexual exploitation – and the racial connotations associated with it in many cases – was a hidden crime until exposed by the Times newspaper a few years ago. The book was eventually published by the American Solstice publishing group just as some critical court cases were dealt with in Britain.
Now there is a lot more knowledge available about child sexual exploitation and how it happens. My story would seem to be on the tame side rather than sensationalising a particularly pernicious grooming process for the young victims. But Grace’s plight has struck a chord with some of the current workers in the field – to the extent that one actually asked me if it was based on personal experience.