Sally SpeddingSally Spedding takes a critical look at an old adage and suggests instead a leap into the unknown.

Write what you know…

How often have we seen that well-worn dictat in writing magazines and wherever else some confident scribe is ploughing that easiest of furrows? It’s worrying how influential they can be to new writers putting toes into the treacherous waters of creativity, where the ‘what’ could include using real-life people.

I’ve been around the publishing block many times since 2001 when ‘Wringland’ appeared as the first of a two-book deal with Pan Macmillan, and many times since then, it’s been a particular place which has haunted my mind, triggering copious, long-hand notes. Plus photographs and sketches…

That place, be it the Fens or a ruined lead mine in Carmarthenshire, even a bottomless loch full of man-eating carp in Scotland, will be the main character. Its history, climate, smells, residual vibes are for me, the keys to unlocking a chilling story. Next, is who has been there? Why? Who will be there, and again, why? But unlike the setting, these characters are complete strangers, born as Graham Hurley so intriguingly admitted at the Winchester Writers’ Festival a few years ago, from where, he couldn’t say. “It’s all very mysterious,” he then added, to a hushed room.

He’s right.

A place I return to three times a year, for a strange kind of sustenance, is the former Cathar village of Montaillou, in the Pays d’Aillon in SW France, once many centuries ago, home to a brave but risky rejection of Catholicism whose afterlife doctrine of Heaven and Hell took most of its inhabitants to a church-sanctioned Hell in Foix, Pamiers and particularly Carcassonne with its grim Tower of Justice. Little did these peaceful folk (who believed at death, the soul flees the body to occupy an empty womb, whether human or animal, to be re-born) and their ‘Parfaits’ realise the danger they were in, until too late. How willing traitors – mainly from a well-connected family, lurked among them…

1320 was the year of doom, and today, barely signposted, Montaillou conveys an overpowering air of secrecy. The stranger feels like a trespasser…

I dare anyone to read Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s eponymous ‘Montaillou,’ (Penguin Books) an account of the villagers’ lives and terrible deaths, and not be moved to tears. While visiting the Dominicans’ former stronghold in Carcassonne, some years ago, I experienced truly vivid and weird timeslip. Enough said, except it triggered a grim horror novel (still in the drawer) in which a school trip at the mercy of incompetent staff becomes a tragedy.

Last year, at Montaillou’s new café, I whispered to the girl behind the desk if any descendants of those betrayers were still alive. Their tombs in the nearby churchyard had suggested not. However, she nodded discreetly towards a distinguished-looking grey-haired man enjoying a coffee. I dare not give any more information here, except to add…

Plus ça change…

Real people, young and old were either victims or perpetrators in a time of terror, and never would I think of using them or anyone else in a work of fiction. (An unfortunate word for that ‘mysterious’ creation of a story.) To me, the cannibalising of dead and living family members and others reflects laziness and/or a lack of imagination. Maybe vengeance. Sadly, it’s not uncommon, and galling for those recognising themselves in print but also, doing this could result in legal action. Even if names have been changed, detailed physical descriptions can give the game away. However, in ‘The Day of The Jackal’ Frederick Forsyth at least describes General de Gaulle’s would-be assassin as ‘a tall, blond Englishman with opaque grey eyes,’ when in real life, Alain de Bougrenet de la Tocnaye was ‘a short, bespectacled, baldish Frenchman with clear blue eyes and the candid pink-cheeked face of an aging choirboy.’

Nevertheless, best not go there…

I’d suggest instead, when embarking on your crime chiller, to take not only an era, a particular place or places which even, despite their attractiveness, have touched your deepest fears or greatest joys, but also a leap into the unknown with your cast of characters, where the best, most inventive of crime writers have also ventured. And who knows, like Agatha Christie’s wonderful, ‘fictional’ Hercule Poirot, you may one day even find your lead character’s obituary in ‘The New York Times.’

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