Today Laura Wilkinson, author of Public Battles, Private Wars answers a few of my questions.
1. Tell us about Public Battles, Private Wars. What’s it about?
It’s about friendship and love, enemies and fighting. And food. But mostly it’s about being the best you can be no matter how dire the circumstances or the odds. As my central character and narrator Mandy says at the opening of the novel: ‘Sometimes, we need enemies more than we need friends. Sometimes, we find the best of ourselves in the strangest places, during the strangest times.’
Set against the backdrop of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike, Mandy is a young wife who lives in a (fictional) Yorkshire pit village. She flunked out of school, fell pregnant at sixteen and at twenty-three is married to a good-looking drinker with four kids. She’s not much good at anything, other than baking cakes. Or so she thinks. When a childhood friend returns to the village – glamorous, clever Ruth – Mandy thinks she’s found a mate and a role model, but Ruth isn’t all she seems and neither is her Falklands war hero husband Dan. I’m not going to say any more because, of course, I hope you’ll read it!
2. Where did you get the inspiration for Public Battles, Private Wars?
From a photograph of a group of women marching down a suburban street waving a banner – Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures. I was researching another story idea. Immediately, I knew it must have been taken during the 80s because of the frizzy perms and badly cut jeans, but it was the expression on the women’s faces that sparked the idea. They didn’t look downtrodden or defeated, or even especially angry; they appeared empowered, smiling, marching with a spring in their step. I couldn’t get them out of my head and so I began to read about the strike and the women’s involvement in it. Then this young woman started speaking to me. She had low self- esteem, but she was bright and funny, and I knew she had so much more to give.
3. Do you like to plan your new work in progress before you start or do you like to see where the story takes you?
Like many writers, I’m neither a fully paid up member of the planner nor pantser club; I fall somewhere in between. I begin with character (see above!) or theme and a dilemma, or a ‘what if’, and once I’ve explored this thoroughly, I generally have a rough idea of the story arc. I don’t plan scene by scene; I prefer to allow the story and characters room to breathe, to take on a life of their own. So stories can shift and alter, and I’m OK with that. The unexpected can be so exciting, and challenging!
4. Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress?
Sure, though it will probably alter. I’ve got two working titles (I find titles notoriously tricky) – Skin Deep and Ugly Beautiful. Here’s the pitch:
They say beauty is only skin deep.
Former model Diana is desperate to be admired for her art and not her beauty. Cal is a drummer with a face damaged by disease; he wants people to see beyond his deformed features to the person inside.
When they meet, each believe they have found their muse.
Modifying her appearance for art, Diana challenges notions of beauty and ugliness, but Cal wants to use advances in cosmetic surgery to look more acceptable, and he is falling in love…
Set in Manchester and London UGLY BEAUTIFUL/ SKIN DEEP follows two unconventional people seeking love and acceptance in a world obsessed with image.
5. What’s your way of dealing with the dreaded writer’s block?
If I’m honest, and I hope I don’t sound smug, I don’t suffer from it. Or haven’t yet! Writers write; they don’t hang around for the muse. First drafts are nearly always ropey, so I tend to go with it and write even when I think it’s total shite. It can always be improved. I work as an editor as well as a writer so perhaps this attitude is a result of this. I like editing, which helps, though all writers need to edit, and edit and edit and edit…
6. Do you have any advice for anyone writing their first novel?
Gosh, there’s so much advice around I’m not sure if mine will add anything new, but here goes!
Read and read and read, especially, but not exclusively, in your chosen genre. Read as many ‘how to’ books as you can stomach. You won’t agree with or use all the advice but you might pick up a few gems and they can sustain you. Remember that rules are meant to be broken, but you must understand the rules before you break them.
Write. Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it; do it (see earlier comment about waiting for the muse). Banish your internal critic while writing your first draft. Write with your heart; edit with your head.
When you feel ready, share your work with trusted friends – readers and/or writers. Not your mum. She loves you; she’ll think it’s marvellous. It probably isn’t. You need supportive, knowledgeable colleagues. If you’re studying for a degree or MA you should find plenty; if not join a writers’ group or seek professional advice from people like me. I work freelance as an editor – developmental and copyediting – and through Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.
Enjoy! And when you’ve completed your first draft remember to crack open the champagne, or your celebratory poison of choice. Writing a novel is a huge achievement, and if you’re anything like me, nothing will beat the feeling of seeing a completed manuscript on your dining room table. You did it!
Public Battles, Private Wars is out now