Writing the unknown
My very first novel had, as its protagonist, one Ms Delilah Cole. Born to uncaring parents, her father was called Sydney Cole. Of British origins, they were living in India. Not too sure where in India, but I remember it was a very pastoral setting, somewhere in the countryside. She made friends with an Indian family of 6 children and passed her time with them because, of course, she wasn’t sent to any of the Indian schools ( such misfortunes only befall me and my kind :D).
I don’t think we got any farther than this. If I remember correctly, we had finished writing only the first chapter. I say ‘we’ because it was coauthored by my friend Shalini. As far as I remember, it was my idea to write a novel. And since at 12, I was a very social being, I wanted to do it with someone. I roped in Shalini and we both got down to work. What was the story going to be about? We decided it had to be about a little girl who was neglected ( like Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl in School or FH Burnett’s protagonist in The Secret Garden, we ourselves felt very neglected). How do you show that a little girl is neglected? Give her an awful name ( because that’s what the parents would have done when they found they didn’t love their child). there was no question of having the girl Indian or giving her an Indian name. It had to be a western, Christian name. Where do you go for western, Christian names? The Bible, of course! What woman in the bible is wicked and evil? I had read the stories from the Bible thoroughly. So it came to me rather like a flash, Delilah. That selfish woman who couldn’t be loyal to her husband. Having just read and influenced greatly by The Tale of Two Cities, I loved Sydney and his name. I think Shalini came up with the Cole part. So Delilah’s father was a devastatingly handsome Sydney Cole. Delilah was, of course, British because well little Indian girls had no adventures in their lives. They did not have islands where there would be smugglers that they could help catch. They did not have bacon and eggs for breakfast. They did not have a secret garden to discover. They did not go to boarding schools and have midnight parties by the swimming pool. Obviously, if a story had to sell, it had to be about girls who had the opportunity to do all those things and more. And British girls did it all. Also, the setting had to be the countryside because, both Shalini and I lived in the city and we both knew nothing ever happens in the city. Whereas, in most of the novels we read, so many things seemed to happen in small villages.
I showed this first chapter to Amma once and she was amused and she finally said, “ you should write what you know, not what you think you know”. And with that, Shalini and I abandoned that first attempt. Quite frankly, neither of us knew where to take it. No sooner had we started it, we had written ourselves into a dead end.
Subsequently, though, my stories have all been about what I know. Elements of me creep into all my situations, all my characters and all my plots. Also, probably one of the reasons why I hesitate to send any for publishing. A little too much of me out there for my own comfort. I never thought about that unfinished story ever after. Leaving it as a really bad first attempt that is best forgotten.
The other day,however, I came across the following speech by this Turkish author.
I really liked the speech and it got me thinking. Sure, one writes better of what one knows then of what one doesn’t know. But does that mean that one completely abandons writing about what one doesn’t know? I mean what exercise does the imagination get when one is writing and describing what one already knows. Ofcourse, one always uses the imagination to incorporate ones experiences and thoughts and feelings in ones story so that it all reads as one story. But, what about wild imaginings? Wouldn’t a writer be better off, if he were to explore the unexplored every now and then. Wouldn’t his description of the known be so much more detailed and precise if he were to do this say every 4 months? I think it would. So, as a writer, my newest strategy is to write something completely out of my experience and world ad make it sound as genuine as possible. Hmmm perhaps, its time to revisit Delilah Cole. Shalini, What say??!