Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | July 22, 2012

Writing What You Know Part 1

Writers, especially beginning ones, are often advised to write what they know.  Many authors take exception to this as they feel it’s unnecessarily restrictive, that a skilled writer with appropriate research should be able to write about any subject matter.  I’m not about to wade into this debate here.  But I think that even when writing about a different historical period, an unfamiliar culture, or a job we’ve never done, we can’t help but bring something of ourselves into the mix, whether we’re aware of it or not.  And in my case I was quite surprised to see just how much of my history I bring to my writing.

My first book is based on a story called “Maidenhair” that I wrote 21 years ago.  At approximately 10,000 words, it didn’t easily fit into the length required by literary magazines and so was never published.  The narrator is fourteen-year-old Kate who is spending the summer at her grandmother’s seaside home.  After learning that her Aunt Emma drowned long before Kate was born, she sets out to discover the circumstances of Emma’s death.  The story goes beyond a simple mystery as the search awakens Kate’s adolescent sexuality and eventually she relives the events that led to her aunt’s suicide.

When I came to write the first Kate Galway novel, I decided to base it on this story.  However,  l aged Kate by 40 years and changed the narration to third person subjective.  In this way I could show the events of the plot through many characters’ points of view.  (Imagine my dismay when I discovered Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books and learnt how successful a young girl’s narrative voice can be.)  I kept the seaside setting, the grandmother, Emma’s mysterious drowning, and the attractive artist for whom the young Kate feels an attraction.

Even as I was writing the initial story all those years ago, I was conscious that I was exploring the theme of family secrets.  But it wasn’t until I expanded the story into a novel that I realized just how large family secrets loom in my own life.

My Father’s Side of the Family: Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their children

For one thing, I know nothing about my father’s family.  I know their last name and I think my grandfather owned a bicycle shop, but that’s it.  My father simply never talked about them.  Since they spoke a different language than I and lived behind the Iron Curtain for most of their lives, he never took me to visit them.  He did, however, once say that we’d been White Russians during the revolution and had to flee to Poland where we changed our name, but even so, anyone who saw our name would recognize it as royalty.  So I grew up imagining that I was descended from a surviving member of the house of Romanov.  Once I saw Ingrid Bergman’s Anastasia, it became blatantly obvious who my grandmother really was.  The grainy black and white photograph of the squat Slavic woman my father said was my grandmother was obviously part of the elaborate deception my aristocratic family had been forced to perpetrate in order to remain safe.

With so little known about my father’s side, I clung onto every scrap of information I could about my mother’s family.  But even then, much was hidden.  Just like the mysterious Aunt Emma whom Kate never knew, people in my family had a habit of disappearing.  I realized later that I had unconsciously patterned the death of Emma on that of my Uncle Terry.

My Uncle Terry at My Parents’ Wedding. He Would Die Five Months Later.

Terrence Hugh Fitzpatrick was my mother’s younger brother.  After following the family naval tradition and serving in the merchant marine during World War II, he was taken into the family business.  Only one month after the birth of his son, Terry fell asleep at the wheel, rolled his car down an embankment, and bled to death.  As you’d expect, his death devastated the family.  My mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral as a precaution against complications with her pregnancy.

But even a seemingly straightforward car accident was problematic.  My mother often spoke about the family’s suspicion that Terry may have suffered from haemophilia since he tended to get nose bleeds whenever he was excited.  Did he have haemophilia?  We’ll never know for sure, but this story has been kept alive.  It’s as if the family couldn’t believe that their only son, with such a bright future ahead of him, could die such a senseless death.  In grief it is typical for people to look for someone or something to blame.  No one wanted to hold Terry responsible, so the haemophilia myth allowed us to transfer the blame.  It was the disease that killed him, not his own carelessness.

Like Terry, Kate’s aunt was on the threshold of her life having just been accepted into Cambridge University and about to become the first person from the island to attend university.  Part of what Kate is up against as she searches for the truth of Emma’s death is that the islanders have mythologized Emma, hiding any suspicions they might have had of her dark side.  However, it is this dark side that Kate is forced to uncover and confront.

“Would you want to know something about Emma, even if it wasn’t nice?” Quentin asked.

“It’s not the nice things that get you killed, is it?”

TO BE CONTINUED: Two more relatives go missing in Part 2.


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