Writing what you know and a love of vintage motorbikes
As published on Louise Allen's Writers in the Attic blog
Writing advice comes in all shapes and sizes, and although I’ve ignored many well-intended titbits and suggestions, my father’s early encouragement ‘to write what you know’ was the prompt that started a lifetime love of rural storytelling.
My Dad had taken this exact advice and run with it in his early thirties. A motorbike-mad Kiwi looking for a way to provide for his wife and four children, he turned his hand to motorcycle journalism and was published in thirteen countries. As well as putting food on the table, his magazine commissions saw him invited to bike rallies across the world and the income helped bolster his own two-wheeled collection. In my teen years, I was charged with proof-reading numerous articles and absorbed plenty of detail about old bikes and the collectors who coveted them.
Eager to emulate my father’s example and see my name in print, I started writing stories on giant pandas (researched entirely from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica in those pre-internet days). They were never picked up by the Totally Wild Magazine, prompting me to seek expert advice.
‘Write what you know, love,’ Dad urged. ‘Tell a story about something you’re doing here and now.’ Dad was right. There was plenty of livestock in the small country town of Tantanoola where we lived, but not a panda within cooee. It was the mid-90s and our family had just invested in a chunky (though at that stage cutting-edge) Apple Macintosh computer. I went back to the drawing board, feeling like a teenage Lois Lane as I typed an article about the 40-Hour Famine fundraising sleepover I had organised. That piece got me a step closer to my publishing dream. That’s Life Magazine accepted the submission on the condition it was edited to read like it was written from my father’s perspective, with an ‘I’m so proud of my daughter’ theme. I didn’t get my by-line, but still, I kept writing.
Like the main character Penny McIntyre in my first novel Wildflower Ridge, I was keen to shake off my country roots the moment I finished high school. Unlike Penny – who spends a decade in the city before she returns home – I quickly realised rural Australia was where I belonged, although it took an international disaster to point me in the right direction.
I was living in Connecticut, just a forty-five-minute train ride from Grand Central Station when the Twin Towers went down. I wrote home regularly with updates on the attack, the fear rippling through my neighbourhood and then the sense of unity and American patriotism that followed. Excerpts from my letters were turned into a newspaper article, and I was delighted to score a journalism cadetship on my return to Australia.
As a keen young journalist at the twice-weekly country paper, I was in my element. However, I didn’t always have the luxury of writing what I knew. Being an uncoordinated bookworm with an aversion to all things political, I found the weekly netball reports both baffling and tiresome, and had trouble feigning interest in local council meetings. Luckily, I found my niche writing feature stories on old farmers, quiet achievers, primary school fundraisers, country bake sales and innovative community projects.
And when I settled down to write my first manuscript in 2017, I had a fair idea of the themes I wanted to explore. For the first time in my writing career, I had the freedom to describe the sound of warbling magpies, the delightful scents of a kitchen mid-bake up, the relief of rain after a dry spell and the hard conversations that tear families apart. I experimented with a few different genres, but my muse did a happy dance when I wrote about small country communities, shaped by those I’d always lived in and loved.
My second novel, Bottlebrush Creek, features an ambitious fixer-upper renovation project, a family dairy farm, a meddling mother-in-law, troublesome tradies and more cute calves than you can poke a stick at.
While my characters, settings and plenty of the storylines are completely fictional, many of the topics are deeply rooted in fact. I only have to close my eyes and I’m standing in the lowered walkway at my best friend’s dairy, swollen udders at eye level, one eye on the milk flow and the other on the lookout for twitching tails, which were usually followed by a shower of bovine waste. Plenty’s changed since I helped milk cows, but a new dairy-farming friend happily checked my milking scenes for current-day accuracy.
There are other scenes in Bottlebrush Creek that call on more recent memories. I didn’t have to look far for inspiration in the renovation plotline, as my husband and I owner-built our own home. I gave my main character Angie McIntyre some of my own blissfully ignorant enthusiasm at the start of the project and had her ride the roller coaster of frustration, joy, budget worries and relationship stress. I added snakes and feral pigs into the mix, two pests we deal with here in south-west Victoria, and landed poor Angie with a daughter who was a ‘biter,’ just like my firstborn.
It’s for this same reason that I’ve woven dahlias and roses, chickens and sheep, scones and sponge cakes, big families and rowdy children into both my rural romances – the scenes are much easier to write when I can start off with a hint of a memory and embellish it with a hefty dose of fiction.
Much to Dad’s delight, I gave Rob Jones – my leading man in Bottlebrush Creek– a passion for vintage motorbikes (with a special nod to the Indian I'm sitting on in the above photo). And after all those years proof-reading my father’s magazine articles, it felt like I’d come full circle to sit down beside him, second draft in hand, and go over the motorbike scenes with a fine-tooth comb. And when new writers ask my opinion on the matter, I’ll always encourage them ‘write what you know’.
Featured on Writers in the Attic June 29, 2002 https://louiseallan.com/2020/06/29/maya-linnell-write-what-you-know/