I have been cranking out stories since I was about ten years old. When I was thirteen, I received an old Smith-Corona typewriter for Christmas, which quickly became a gift my dad regretted giving. I used to drive him nuts with the clickity clack of those keys!
Throughout my childhood, in a time without internet or cell phones (I’m aging myself here), I was surrounded by stories. We listed to vinyl records on Saturday mornings while we cleaned the house with Mum. Since my dad was in the Army, we were constantly moving, which meant always making new friends and discovering new places. We spent our days outside with new friends, playing no further than the streetlamp at the end of the street, until Mum yelled to for us to come inside, usually around sunset.
Many years later, when I took a writing class in Sydney in 2016, one of the first questions our instructor asked was what influences your writing? To be honest, the question threw me. I had no clue, nor had I really thought about it. I just wrote down what was in my head. What I learned because of that question, is one of the most important lessons I took from that class.
What has influenced my writing over the years?
The short answer? Everything. Memories. Books. Music. People. Dreams.
Let’s start with books.
I grew up reading Amelia Bedelia and Pippi Longstocking. I loved Amelia Bedelia’s bumbling flaws and beautiful intentions. She was an absolute mess, and I loved that. It was like reading Mary Poppins without the magic and ‘holier than thou’ prissiness. Amelia Bedelia taught me it was okay to fumble your way through, because you got there in the end. If you had a good heart, kindness, and the best intentions, you would eventually achieve any goal you set your mind to.
Now Pippi Longstocking had adventure in her soul. Because we moved a lot, I was always starting new schools and trying to make new friends. Pippi provided a way to escape into an adventure and get into mischief. I was that goody-two-shoes kind of kid. I always wanted to fit in, and my parents had enough going on, without me getting into any real trouble (that came later). Pippi became the rebel inside me.
I moved from Amelia and Pippy into – I groan as I write this – Danielle Steel. I distinctly remember reading “Summers End” when I was 15. I ran down the outdoor corridor at school, past the library and economics room, yelling (spoiler alert), “she’s pregnant with Ben’s baby!” Okay, so I know it wasn’t classic literature. I was getting enough of that through my English classes. Reading Danielle Steel made me believe that I, too, could be a writer someday and bring the same joy to others through story twists and turns.
And that brings me to my current day obsession with J.D. Robb. Until the 2000s I was a chick lit/romance reader. I still read new Danielle Steel releases, a guilty pleasure that always puts my head into ‘holiday mode’. But Nora Roberts, who writes as J.D. Robb, can draw you in to gore and mayhem like no other. Add in some gorgeously interesting characters – I’d love to have Peabody as a bestie – and you’ve got a reader for life. I think she’s up to Book 54 with her next release in the “In Death” series. It’s with Ms. Roberts that made me feel that I, too, could write a thriller. Not as good as hers, mind you, but a story with some twists and turns of my own.
Mum faced constant change as an Army wife. She never knew where home would be in a year or two. She made the most of what we had and made sure we enjoyed the simple pleasures in life. Seeing my mother’s strength and resilience, when faced with a lifestyle so different to her own upbringing, well, that was an enormous influence with my writing. (Mum continues to be influential when writing about ‘mother hen’ characters overflowing with generosity and kindness.)
My paternal grandfather thought travel was the best thing you could ever do. His later letters spoke of travels with my grandmother and how travel quickly became an addiction. He was always asking us of places we’d like to see when we grew up. My grandparents often wrote to me, especially once I moved overseas. I loved those letters. In my novel, The Decisions We Make, I weave the idea of letter writing into the story. (You’ll have to read it to understand how.) My grandfather’s handwriting was beautiful and spoke of far-away places. My grandmother’s, scratchy and rushed, told stories that were so blunt they made me laugh out loud (like the time my grandfather slept through his electric blanket catching fire. He was okay, but the way my grandmother described it, you could imagine her shaking her head and saying, ‘Oh Keith….’)
People watching is one of my favourite things to do. Living in the country (now) doesn’t allow for much of it, but whenever I travel, I’m devouring everything that is happening around me. It’s always the little things. Like the old man on the train playing peek a boo with the toddler. The dad reading to the baby strapped to his chest, as he waits for his partner in the nearby shop. I received a tip I received from that Sydney writing instructor: Note everything around you as there’s a story in everything. Best advice ever.
There is a joke that floats around the writing community: “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel”. It is probably no surprise that most characters are inspired by real people.
Friends say they see traces of me in each character from Camino Wandering. It’s true I suppose. I am spiritual like Aubrey (and was called an Indigo Girl on both my Camino wanders, both times by complete strangers). I am creative like Georgina. I love photography and it took me a long time to pluck enough courage to become a professional photographer before I pivoted to be a writer. And, yes, I’m a mother hen and a Camino tragic like Pam – and have been known to swear like a sailor at times too. These characters are also influenced by others I’ve met too. And no, I won’t reveal who.
I’ve recently asked for a vinyl record player for an upcoming birthday. I loved the days of popping on a record while pottering around the house when I was a kid. It’s a favourite memory of my mother (she passed away in 2001) and the best days of my childhood.
Billy Joel was often played in a house. “For the Longest Time” had us all singing our various roles to that tune, while suds dripped from the dishes. One would sing lead vocal, while the others sang backup. Billy Joel was (is) a master of storytelling. So were Peter Allen, Stevie Wonder, and Barbra Streisand in their heydays… all family favourites. Eventually I moved on to Noiseworks, Crowded House, then Cold Chisel (once you could interpret Jimmy Barnes slurring vocals). While the beat was great, I was enraptured by the lyrics.
None of my writing could have begun without two things that kicked me into gear. My dreams and that writing class I took in Sydney.
Beneath the Surface was my first manuscript. The storyline was inspired by a dream. I woke thinking my dream would make for an excellent scene in a book, and so I began writing… and was still writing eighteen hours later. Ironically, that scene never made it into the book. (I’ll have to find it to share some day.) The story began in a completely different direction.
The layers of the story (Beneath the Surface) unfolded in the writing class. My fellow writers asked questions in the critique component that made me dig deeper, and the deeper I dug, the more I disliked the romance angle it started from. “White Knight” was thrown around a lot. Thus became the start of multiple rewrites. No wonder it took so long to finish the book!
Since then, I’ve noted my dreams. If you write them down when they are fresh, you can sometimes use them as writing prompts or, if they are vivid, use them as specific scenes. I find dreams a powerful source of influence.
The Camino de Santiago.
Let’s not forget one of the biggest influences in my writing adventure: the Camino. When I finished my first (solo) Camino, I was still working as a travel blogger and so it made sense to write a memoir. But the more I researched it, the more I was put off by the idea. I pondered the idea for a time, and in the meantime, walked another Camino with my husband. By this time, I thought I’d write about the differences between the two experiences. How walking solo opens conversations and connections while walking with another person can create a built-in buffer to others.
Then I saw one movie that influenced the direction of that book. “The Way” starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. The movie is a fictional tale of grief and connection, while walking the eight-hundred-kilometre trail. That’s when it clicked for me that my Camino story would be a fictional one, and so Camino Wandering emerged.
Influences come in all forms. People. Books. Music. Dreams. I know I’m a different kind of writer than many, especially when it comes to taking close note of my dreams. But I think everyone could benefit from the question: What influences your writing?