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The key ingredients of my fiction

This week I’ve attended a number of events from at teashop reading at Beatons, Crowthorne to talking about my writing and the submission process with the Reading Writers group to a glamorous evening shared with some wonderful romantic novelists at Goldsboro Books’s Romance In The Court. So I’ve been thinking and talking a great deal about what the nature of my fiction and my writing process. I thought I’d share these with you too.

Here are some of the key ingredients that go into making a Virginia Macgregor novel!

I’m sure that those of you who have read What Milo Saw and The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells will be familiar with the following – there are many more but these lie at the heart of my stories.

1. I write about contemporary life

The origins of the word ‘novel’ comes from the French nouvel: it means ‘new,’ ‘young,’ ‘fresh’. I believe that novels have a unique role to play in capturing contemporary life. The novelists I love most, from Charles Dickens to Jodi Picoult, do just that: their stories give us a snapshot of what it means to be alive today.

My hope is that, if someone were to slice open one of my novels a hundred years from now, they would get an insight into contemporary Britain. And of course, I hope that you, my readers of today, will feel a jolt of familiarity as you open the pages of my novels.

One of the key ways in which I ground my stories in contemporary life, is through the settings I use.

Many novelists love to explore exotic settings and I know that readers often like to be transported to different worlds. I love those books too. But my stories are slightly different – and I hope no less loveable.

I write about small towns and villages that you will recognise.

The town of Slipton in Milo and Holdingwell in Norah Wells could easily be my local town, Crowthorne, or any of the everyday towns and villages up and down the country. My characters live on ordinary residential roads in ordinary towns – they walk down the kind of high streets we’re familiar with: boarded up shops, charity shops, hairdressers, a zillion places to have a coffee but nowhere to buy a pair of jeans!

C.S. Lewis wrote:

‘We read to know that we are not alone.’

By allowing my readers to feel at home in the worlds I create, I hope that they feel understood and so less alone.

2. I tackle contemporary issues

It’s impossible to write about the world without mirroring the challenging situations that everyday people face.

Each of my novels tackle one main issue: What Milo Saw explores the nursing home crisis; Norah Wells looks at the consequences of a mother walking out on a young family; and my third novel, Before I Was Yours, is about adoption.

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Talking to the children of Eagle House school about Milo’s eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa. 

In each novel, I explore other issues too, partly because I want all my characters to be fully rounded and because I want to be true to life. Anyone, at any given time, is facing some kind of challenge: social, emotional, physical, psychological. Many of these challenges stem from the world in which we live today. Showing how each my characters is fighting their own particular battle makes my stories richer and, once again, allows my readers to feel better understood.

For example, in Milo, my main character, a little 9-year-old boy, is suffering from a degenerative eye condition and the cook in the nursing home is a Syrian refugee. Indeed, a wrote a short story for charity, expanding the narrative of Tripi, the Syrian refugee.  In Norah Wells I expose the benefits and pitfalls of how young people use twitter and what it means to take on someone else’s children.

We live in a 24h news and Internet world, which numbs us to the lives and challenges of others: I believe that novels create a private, safe and intimate space for us to reconnect with the world.

Novels re-sensitise us and so make us more human.

3. I write from several points of view

In the evenings, after a long day, we often sit down with a friend or loved one or call someone and tell the story of what’s happened to us in the last twelve hours. We tell them what we’ve done and seen and felt and experienced.

And every single one of our stories is different because no two people see the world in the same way.That’s why I love writing from multiple points of view.

Writing from several viewpoints makes the reading experience much richer and more exciting – and it makes novels more fun to write too.

In Norah Wells, you are given an insight into how five very different characters react to Norah’s departure and her return: 6-year-old Willa who doesn’t even remember her mother; 14-year-old Ella who’s been idolising her mother and longing for her return for the past six years; Adam, Norah’s husband, who was abandoned; Norah herself and then, perhaps one of the most interesting viewpoints, that of Fay, The Mother Who stayed and held the family together.

Many lovely readers have got in touch to say that they couldn’t put Norah Wells down, that the pace and the suspense kept them reading, often late into the night. I think that the switching from one point of view to another created that effect.

4. I sprinkle magic dust over my stories

When I gave you the etymology of the word ‘novel’ I left out part of word’s origins. As well as meaning ‘new’ and ‘fresh’, the word novel also means ‘strange’ and ‘unusual’. And that takes me to the next ingredient in my fiction, one that I absolutely love.

I believe in the magic of the ordinary.

I see it all the time. How people meet and become friends. How people fall in love. The extraordinary connection between the very young and the very old, which I explore in What Milo Saw. People’s intuition, their ability to do things that no one would have ever expected of them. Their creativity. Their capacity to love.

There’s a proper literary term for this: Magic Realism. I wouldn’t claim to be a magic realist writer – I’m much more light-handed with the magic I use, but I have been influenced by how the wonderful Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez use magic alongside real life to give their readers both a familiar and otherworldly experience .

I include animals and children in my fiction for just this reason: because I feel that they’re closest to the magic of life.

Animals through their heightened senses tap into worlds that we just don’t see; children, through their imaginations, engage and reflect the world in ways that are fresh and surprising and beautiful.

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Hamlet from What Milo Saw as drawn by the wonderful Ginny Baker.

In Wishbones, my first Young Adult novel coming out in March 2017, I have a goat called Houdini – named after the famous magician – escape artist. Houdini keeps running away. But he also has a way of touching the lives of everyone in the village and of bringing them together.

More than children and animals, I’m a great believer that there is magic in all of us and that novels are a wonderful opportunity to remind us of that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little glimpse into what I throw into my cauldron whenever I sit down to write a novel.

What Milo Saw (PB)-3