Today’s guest blog is by T R Richmond who is an award- wining journalist. What She Left is his debut novel and he talks to Shots about choosing a 25 year-old female as a character.
People talk about their childhood and teenage years as a time of wonder and change, but our 20s are the most formative years of our lives.
It’s only then that we pass properly from child to adult. We might leave university, get full-time employment, change jobs, share flats with different people and relocate around the country. We might get into – and maybe get out of – our first serious relationship or relationships. It’s still also often the decade when people get married and have kids. Everything changes in your 20s and change is a writer’s bread-and-butter. For this reason, I was keen that the protagonist in What She Left, Alice Salmon, would be a woman of this age.
I tried to make her like a lot of people in their 20s – changing and changeable, likeable, difficult, still trying to establish who they are and where their place is in the world.
It’s a wonderful, terrifying decade, when we still sometimes act like kids, but have the responsibilities of adults. Our bodies (and disposable incomes) are those of grown-ups – but, if what I was like at 25 is anything to go by, our brains can still be childlike. We’re let properly loose on the world for the first time.
What better material for a novelist than someone in this maelstrom?
Creating Alice presented me with two immediate challenges, however. Firstly, I’m no longer in my 20s. Secondly, I’m a man.
Both were problematic at times but, as a writer, my job is to imagine. If we can transplant ourselves into, say, the head of an serial killer in America or a cop in a faraway dystopian future, then changing our age by a mere few years and giving ourselves a temporary gender reassignment should be a relatively simple business. Besides, it can be unhelpful to view your characters in predominantly male or female terms. They’re people. Human beings. Individuals.
When I was writing from Alice’s perspective, I wouldn’t ask: How would a man or a woman specifically respond to this situation? I’d ask: How would Alice respond?
That said, I did find myself asking many questions of my wife and female friends. They must have got heartily sick of me. A lot of this material never made it directly into the book; it was background that helped me establish a sense of Alice. What would her politics be? What radio station would she listen to? What food would she like eating? What would she drink? What would her favourite book be? What would she think about the war in Afghanistan? It helped hugely, as well, to have a female literary agent, who acted as a constant sense-check on the authenticity of dialogue and story.
I also read lots of women’s magazines while I was writing the book and, while I wouldn’t claim for a second that such “research” qualified me in itself to write a female character, it was certainly eye-opening. It also earned me a few strange looks on trains.
Ultimately, a writer’s job is simple. It’s to watch, to listen, to read, to ask questions – and then to write stuff down. This process is the same whether you’re male or female, just as it’s the same whether you’re 9 or 90.
A few years ago, they used to say that men were from Mars and women were from Venus. I disagree. We’re definitely from the same planet – even if occasionally we do inhabit different corners of it.
A Facebook page for Alice Salmon can be found here.
A fictional blog for Professor Jeremy Cooke where he is gathering information about her death can be found here.
You can follow him on Twitter @trrichmondbooks
What She Left
Who is Alice Salmon?
Student. Journalist. Daughter.
Lover of late nights, hater of deadlines.
That girl who drowned last year.
Gone doesn't mean forgotten.
Everyone's life leaves a trace behind.
But it's never the whole story.
"I will stand up and ask myself who I am. I do that a lot. I'll look in the mirror. Reassure myself, scare myself, like myself, hate myself. My name is Alice Salmon."
When Alice Salmon died last year, the ripples from her tragic drowning could be felt in the news, on the internet, and in the hearts of those closest to her.
However, the man who knows her best isn't family or a friend. His name is Professor Jeremy Cooke, an academic fixated on piecing together Alice's existence.
Cooke knows that faithfully recreating Alice, through her diaries, text messages, and online presence, has become all-consuming.