Lucy Lawrie ran through a lot of different scenarios to breathe life into Tiny Acts of Love.
Tiny Acts of Love is about a young lawyer whose seemingly perfect life unravels in the aftermath of having a baby.
I used to be a lawyer. I’ve had two babies. So people often ask the question: ‘Is it based on your own experience?’
There are two answers to this: ‘Yes, absolutely!’ and ‘No, not at all!’ Both are equally true. To explain this, I want to talk about the three things you need to write a novel.
1. First, there’s the craft of writing – this is like a toolbox. The tools can be used at sentence or paragraph level – adjectives, metaphor, simile, the rhythm and sound of the words, dialogue and humour. Then there are storytelling techniques that work on a bigger scale – whether that’s over the course of a scene, a chapter or a whole novel. Those include elements like pacing, suspense, unanswered questions, controlling the release of information, juxtaposition of characters, settings and events. Craft can be learnt, whether that be from ‘how to write’ books, writing workshops, or simply though trial and error.
2. Secondly, you need material – something to get working on with those tools. You might have ideas for a story, a plot, themes you’d like to explore, or for a certain type of character. These could be inspired by your own life, but don’t have to be. If you need material, a useful way to begin is to play the ‘What If?’ game.
When I started writing Tiny Acts of Love, I started with myself (I didn’t feel I had anything else to start with!) Cassie, the main character, had an outlook that was basically identical to mine. But then I added in ‘What Ifs’… So, what if, instead of growing up in a happy, secure family, I’d been brought up by a single, widowed mother struggling for money? How would that have changed me, and the way I approach life?
What if, instead of marrying my real life husband, I’d married someone infuriating like Cassie’s husband Jonathan, full of bounding, puppy-dog enthusiasm, but dismissive of my worries and parenting angst, and not on the same wavelength at all? How would that have affected my experience as a new mum? What if, instead of having a lovely, supportive antenatal group, I’d got caught up with a taskforce of ultra-competitive mums like the Babycraft group? What if, instead of an understanding and reasonable employer, I’d had a boss who phoned me at home, three days after giving birth, to land a new case on me?
Once you start the ‘What If?’ game, there’s no shortage of potential material. I applied it to almost every area of Cassie’s life, and she quickly became her own person, as real, and as ‘other’ to me as a good friend.
3. Once you have the material and the tools, the third part is that you have to somehow breathe life into what you’ve made. This is all about the emotions your characters feel.
As far as this goes, all you have is your own experience. If a character feels jealousy, or regret, or fear, or hope, or heartbreak, the only way you can write that (the only way I can do it, anyway) is to remember a time you felt those emotions, and incorporate that into the story. That doesn’t mean that your character experiences the same events as you, but rather, simply, that emotions have shapes. You extrapolate those shapes, drawing them on a bigger scale, or perhaps a smaller one, to fit the events of the book.
To take a minor example, one day a neighbour came round to tell me that someone had been in her garden. There was no break-in, no damage. She only knew because they’d picked up some stones and lined them up along the top of the patio wall. I remember my physical response to hearing this – a creepy, spidery sensation, like someone running a finger down my back. And a slippery, panicky feeling at the thought of anyone watching me, or my children, or the house. A similar but more worrying thing happens to Cassie in the book – someone starts leaving anonymous notes, then rearranges the stones in the garden rockery to spell out a message. Cassie’s reaction is an exaggerated version – a bigger version, if you like – of my own emotional response when my neighbour told me that story.
This technique works for deeper, more complex emotions too, ones that play across the canvas of a whole book. In Tiny Acts of Love, Cassie’s long-lost ex-boyfriend comes back into her life, and every time they spend time together (he’s working at her office), she’s overwhelmed with yearning for him, and a sense that maybe he was the right one for her all along, and the only person who’ll ever be able to make her happy. This is potentially devastating, given that she’s now married with a new baby. Again, I played the ‘What If?’ game. I remembered back to the aftermath of one of my big breakups (a long time ago!) and the tumultuous feelings I’d had then – full of despair one minute, full of hope and longing the next, and a blind conviction that it was all, somehow, still meant to be. Then I imagined what it might be like if those feelings had never been resolved – if I’d just buried them, rushed into another relationship, and was feeling them afresh now, in Cassie’s situation, married to someone else.
Other writers may approach things very differently. But I like the ‘What If?’ game, because it does something important – it keeps a thread of connection to yourself. So there is a good chance that the emotions in your novel – and they are the beating heart of it – will come across as real, and honest, and true. That’s when your story will resonate with readers, because what’s real for you might very well be real for them too, or at least some of them. That’s when they’ll give the magical response: ‘I felt like you were writing about me!’ And suddenly the book is not about me, at all, any more – it’s about them. As a writer, that’s what makes me happiest of all.
Surviving motherhood? It’s all about having the right support network.
Lawyer and new mum Cassie has a husband who converses mainly through jokes, a best friend on the other side of the world, and a taskforce of Babycraft mothers who make her feel she has about as much maternal aptitude as a jellyfish. Husband Jonathan dismisses Cassie’s maternal anxieties, but is he really paying attention to his struggling wife? He’s started sleep talking and it seems there’s more on his mind than he’s letting on. Then sexy, swaggering ex-boyfriend Malkie saunters into Cassie’s life again. Unlike Jonathan, he ‘gets’ her. He’d like to get her into bed again, too… And on top of all her emotional turmoil, she also finds herself advising a funeral director on ghost protocol and becomes involved in an act of hotel spa fraud, never mind hiding cans of wasp spray all over the house to deal with the stalker who seems to be lurking everywhere she looks. Marriage and motherhood isn’t the fairytale Cassie thought it would be. Will her strange new world fall apart around her or will tiny acts of love be enough to get her through? Tiny Acts of Love portrays the rawness of motherhood, the flipside of love and the powerful lure of paths not taken.
Lucy Lawrie was born in Edinburgh, and gained an honours degree in English Literature from Durham University before going on to study law. She worked as a lawyer in Edinburgh for several years, specialising in Employment and Pensions law. When Lucy was on maternity leave with her first baby, she unearthed a primary two homework book in which she’d stated, in very wobbly handwriting: ‘I want to be an AUTHOR when I grow up.’ To appease her six-year-old self, she began writing her first novel.