Writing from Experience
I've always hated the phrase "write what you know." I don't particularly want to write about a 40-something twenty-first century novelist in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've always been drawn to historical settings and my characters tend to live lives of intrigue and adventure quite unlike my own. And yet, as I realized string lights along the bridge, there are definitely ways in which my experiences and emotions make their way into my books. In addition to doing historical research, I draw upon my own experiences and those of my friends, when I create the characters in my books. I did this very consciously in the case of my new novella, The Paris Plot, in which Suzanne gives birth to her and her husband Malcolm's second child. I wrote the novella after my daughter Mélanie was born, and I wanted to make use on my own experiences.
I've written childbirth scenes before, but it was definitely a different experience to dramatize one having gone through it myself. I used details of my own daughter's birth. The baby's birthday and the timing of the birth. My brief moment of panic once her head was out when I was afraid I wouldn't be able to push her the rest of the way. The wonder of the moment they laid her squirming, blue-tinged body on my chest. And yet Suzanne's situation had distinct differences from my own. She is having her second child not her first, and so unlikely to have the hours of labor and attendant false alarms I did. And, in 1816, she is having the baby at home rather than in a hospital and without an epidural. Fortunately, Suzanne is much tougher than I am :-). And, as one would expect of a child of Suzanne and Malcolm's, the baby's birth is wrapped up in intrigue. Thankfully, I was not required to bash a villain over the head with a candelabrum while in the later stages of labor.
And so writing The Paris Plot was in many ways a microcosm of what we do as historical novelists. Weaving personal experiences with details from historical research and fictional elements from our own imagination to create a story that is hopefully true to the era in which it set while touching on emotions and experiences that are universal. I've always felt that historical fiction says something both about the time in which it set and the time in which it is written, and in a very personal sense, the story of Jessica Rannoch's birth does just that.
What are your favorite childbirth scenes in literature? Writers, how do your personal experiences make their way into your books?