It’s always enriching for a writer to hear the experiences of a best-selling author. Just listening to their stories, the inspiration for their books, the routines they follow, provide clues to how to succeed as an author. And when that author is Pulitzer Prize winning author Geraldine Brooks, I have to admit, I’m hanging on every word.
This week I listened as the author of March, Year of Wonders and my favourite, People of the Book, shared snippets of her journey from her time as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East to her latest book Caleb’s Crossing.
If you haven’t read Caleb’s Crossing, the book is about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Yet, the story is told by a young Puritan girl who befriends him. So, why did Brooks choose Bethia Mayfield as the narrator? Apparently, that’s the voice she heard when she was researching her story. As Geraldine Brooks puts it: she wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to try to write a first person account in Caleb’s voice. But she was able to write a convincing story in Bethia’s voice from the shreds of evidence that remain of colonial life in North America in the 17th century.
How wonderful to have a voice emerge from the archives, but as Brooks admits – if she can’t hear a voice, she doesn’t have a story. And that’s an important point. The voice is a crucial element of storytelling – a fresh, credible voice can make a novel, a clichéd, contrived one can break it.
When I wrote the Hazard River adventure series, I used the voice of a ten-year-old boy. It wasn’t hard to hear the voice – he was yapping away in the background. My own sons inspired the characters in the series as well as the adventures. I faithfully followed the advice: write what you know.
I shared the inspiration for the Hazard River series at a festival for young writers and readers earlier in the week. The aptly named Voices on the Coast is a celebration of storytelling on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. I was there to help inspire the next generation of writers, but the process works both ways. It’s hard not to be energized by students who are so enthusiastic and talented – bubbling with imagination and ambition. I am inspired to get back to a half finished story on my computer, follow the voices and find out how it ends.
I better get on with it or the voices I’ll be hearing will be those asking for help with Maths homework and questioning what’s for dinner.