NOT WHAT YOU KNOW BUT WHO YOU KNOW

Francesca Burgess considers using family as a jumping off point in fiction.

As I pointed out in my last post, utilising what I know has been quite useful in my writing. Part of that has involved employing family stories.

Like many of my fellow writers, I cut my non-fiction teeth on The Guardian Family section, an obvious place to use family accounts. The first one I had published was about the birth of my daughter, Carmela, or, more specifically, a funny story involving a hospital cleaner and the song Karma Chameleon. Carmela was a little miffed at first that I’d ‘sold’ her to the press, but came round to the idea when she finally saw it in print. I’ve had two other family stories in that section, one about my father and the other about my mother. Sadly, they’re not with us to comment, but I think they’d have been chuffed.

FB Guardian pieces

Some time before my ‘Karma Chameleon’ piece was published, I  sold a story to The Weekly News called A New Beginning, involving another slice of my family life. I changed the names to protect the guilty, oh, except for Peter’s. He rather enjoyed being featured though. It was the second story I ever sold and was based loosely on the programme of events that happened in our household every Easter time. The mother in the story (ie, me!), wanted desperately to do something ‘different’, and eventually did. It took a bit longer in real life.

A year or so later, another family based story, Far From Home, was shortlisted in the Cordelia.net competition. That ended up in an e-anthology called 7 Food Stories from Rome. It starred my Italian father as a twelve-year-old and his widowed mother, Margherita, during the First World War. The fact of him being a twelve-year-old and her an army widow in a strange country was true. The rest was pure invention.

And I think that’s an important point to remember when using family stories in fiction. Back when I attended Adult Ed creative writing classes, I remember one dear lady who wouldn’t change anything in her novel to make it more compelling because “that’s how it happened”. If I’d used my stories as they’d stood, they wouldn’t really have been stories, but accounts. Events and problems were added, dénouements constructed, characters made larger than life.

With my novels I’ve not really delved into family history. It’s been suggested I should use my father’s experience in an internment camp in World War Two, and his consequent meeting with my mother, as a basis of a novel. If I did that, I think I would cast two fictional characters in their places to stop it feeling too close to home. There’s also lots of material from my mother’s Welsh family I could use. Ah, so many stories, so little time and so many other projects to finish. One day, maybe, one day.

 FB 7 Food Stories Rome

A Song For My Daughter, Carmela

Dad’s Lucky Escape in the War 

Dining Room Dancing with Mum

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9 thoughts on “NOT WHAT YOU KNOW BUT WHO YOU KNOW

  1. I found this very interesting reading, especially with all the links to your published pieces. There’s nothing quite like real life and our own memories to inspire our writing and I really enjoyed reading these snippets from your own family’s history.

  2. As you know, Francesca, I’m just coming to the end of my novel based, loosely, on a much loved cousin’s turbulent life. It’s probably the first time I’ve used family as’ ‘material’. Occasionally it was painful, and far more difficult than anything else I’ve written, in emotional terms. In future I shall stick to those characters who emerge from brain or subconscious: those strangers who become as familiar as family.I enjoyed your piece very much and still look forward to reading your parents’ amazing story.

  3. What a great illustration of ‘write what you know’. I expect we all do it to some extent but you’ve shown how events in one’s own life, large or small, can trigger something we can use in our fiction. Nice to have the links too. I shall look at those now.

    • It’s getting the time, isn’t it, Karen? Although I’ve not yet used family stories for my novels, I have used family members, or people I’ve known, as characters, plonking them into a different story. My mum, for instance, sort of appears in Windy Corner Cafe. Maybe I’ll read back a piece with her in next time!

  4. I can associate with all the comments made. I think we all use people we know, or at least their characteristics, when we write. I enjoyed reading this and I shall follow the links also. Family history is so important to me and as you say your writing has a dual purpose.

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