Am I too old to write a novel?
Historical novelist Sarah Maine, who started writing late in life, looks at the benefits of being an older writer
Reading for me is a joy and an escape, and always has been. I didn’t start writing (not fiction anyway) until relatively late in life when the need for a change in direction was emitting a strident siren call. Until then, writing had been self-indulgence, something to be snatched at in a spare half hour using any available scrap paper – and invariably ending up in the bin.
But it became increasingly addictive. I started keeping the scraps of paper and they began to take shape and drive forward a story which ultimately became The House Between Tides. I had read other writers describe how characters stride onto a page and take the plot in an unplanned direction, and had never quite believed it could happen, but I began to experience this curious, and exciting, phenomenon. Sometimes characters had to be brought back into line but others were given their head – they seemed to know what they were doing so I let them get on with it.
Young writers never fail to impress me with their confidence and the sharp immediacy of their work; their books have energy and vitality. Older writers, however, bring other things to the feast – they have a longer perspective which only years and experience can bring. We’ve simply encountered more people and situations, and seen relationships evolve over time, some thriving, some going horribly wrong. We’ve met individuals who have proved unexpectedly kind, or vicious, and complexities which have resolved themselves, or unravelled. Tragedy and comedy provide a deep well on which to draw, and skills or knowledge acquired from career or life experiences give other frames of reference.
When I started to write more seriously I realised that landscape was always going to be important and that I would write about the places I loved – Scotland, Canada and, latterly, New Zealand. Writing seemed to bring with it a sharpened awareness of the sights and the sounds and the smells of a place which brought plot and character into focus.
One of the best things about writing historical novels (what else, in my case, having had a career in archaeology?) is doing the research, and getting the context right. Beyond the Wild River took me back to the part of northern Canada where I spent part of my childhood, and I was able to see it again with adult eyes, and scratching the surface I found the past lying just beneath the forest floor.
Even though only a tiny fraction of any research is ever ‘used,’ it gives vital insights into aspects of life that characters might have enjoyed or endured – although it is all too easy to get distracted by some of those characters who try and pull you down fascinating blind alleys. I have just spent a week in Melbourne exploring the Victorian suburbs, seeing where fictional events in my current project take place – and an even more rewarding time in New Zealand following the spectre of Scottish immigrants drawn there by the 19th-century lure of gold.
In Scotland the past is very close to the surface and the culture is vividly alive in its music, its folklore and poetry and, in the landscape, traces of the past stretch back over the millennia, its people almost tangible. The impact the Scots have had on the world as they left home and spread across oceans and continents is quite extraordinary and still widely felt. In Women of the Dunes I was able to combine my love of Scotland and my career in archaeology – and the joy of writing doesn’t get much better than that! It was just too tempting to try a multi-layered story with the thread of an ancient legend twisting through it, crossing the Atlantic, and still affecting lives as the protagonist peeled back the layers of soil – and deceit.
On some levels writing is anti-social, it is a solitary pastime, but it also connects with a very wide community in a way that creative pursuits do so effectively. I have met, through correspondence, historians, booksellers, archivists and other writers in far-flung places and learned so much from them, while chance conversations with strangers ‘on location’ can give rise to unplanned plot twists and unexpected insights. On this level it is far from anti-social as the networks of communication develop and grow.
So I have discovered, in this change of direction, that the business of writing, of simply putting black letters on white pages, is an extraordinarily powerful thing. And that there is nothing more satisfying, at the end of the process, than hearing from readers who have engaged with the characters and the completed story. One howled in protest from the other side of the world at the ‘killing’ of her favourite character. And then you know that you have succeeded; the book has provided an escape for some-one else – perhaps not a joy though as she complained that I’d robbed her of a night’s sleep!
Women of the Dunes is published by Hodder & Stoughton
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