Yes, of course you draw on your own experience when you write, but it is often woven into the story in a way that can surprise even yourself. An image comes to mind of an old wooden jigsaw I played with as a child. The irregular, conventional pieces made up a cottage garden scene but, hidden amongst the jumble in the box, were the special ones. Each character piece was an exquiste and entire garden bird. That's how these 'set pieces' that come, almost intact, out of real experience or research seem. The rest of the narrative process is creating the framework; imagining the garden in which they will live.
The first draft of The Dipping Pool is now done. It's 79,000 plus words ( will probably be 90,000 when finished as I have some chapters which are sketched rather than written out) and I'm ready to put extracts 'out there'! Here is one from the middle of the book.
But she finds herself unable to walk away from the crate, from the creature with the blunt head and hairy lips. Next she tries him with pounded meat mixed with water into a paste, puts her finger at the tip of his beak. He clamps it shut. She tries wriggling her finger, smearing his beak with the mixture – nothing. He will die then.
She tries again and is successful with the water then makes another attempt with the food. Suddenly he opens his beak, the mouth yawning obscene, she thrusts her little finger, still smeared with the mixture, towards the hole and he latches on, sucking her finger down his throat as far as the first joint!
Laughing, she fights the urge to pull it away and waits until the bird himself releases the hold. Three more times she approaches the beak with food on her finger and he pulls onto it. When he lets go the food is gone.
She lies on an old shawl in a patch of sunshine at the side of the mill. As the breeze moves the branches, their leaves cast an occasional shade that stops her getting too hot. The swift waits a moment on the edge of the shawl then creeps towards her, lobsided, like someone with bad hips. She stretches out her arm to stop him going off towards the hedge and he keeps coming, tucking himself into her armpit. They lie like that for a while. She dozes, careful not to move her arm.
She wakes with a jolt. They will be gone soon. He must fly or he will be left behind. She takes him upstairs and opens the window just underneath the nest. Carefully she puts him on the ledge outside. If he falls but fails to fly he will die. She blocks the gap so he can’t get back in. He shuffles along the ledge. She turns away, unable to look; is he to be forever a tame, lame bird, never to fly? She blocks his return with her folded shawl. But he is not even looking out at the sky, waiting instead to come back in. Almost relieved, she puts her palm down for him and he creeps onto it, balancing with his long wings outstretched as she goes back downstairs.
When her father returns she is still outside with the bird. “What the devil are you doing with that creature? You’ll get fond of it and it’ll die, Branwen. Put it down by the wall – there’s a stoat nest somewhere – it’ll soon be gone." He puts down the oil can, comes closer and peers at it. She holds it up near his face. The bird stares back with its huge pool eyes. Evan smiles, “well, well. To see one so close. There is character in that small face, yes indeed.” He laughs as he goes inside.
She waits until the sky begins to darken before going in herself. The bird is safely in the crate but it is a big step, this first night, to lock a wild creature away.
At this time of year, if we're lucky, there are martins, swifts and swallows to follow with our eyes and ears. Although tragically in decline, some have made it to our patch of sky this year. The swifts in particular go so fast that you can hardly see them and never seem to alight. But, some years ago, my daughter and I had the good fortune to care for an abandoned swift chick. Against all odds it made it back into the skies above Abergavenny. Born free!
It's the last time Branwen will be happy for a while and is based on a wonderful experience my daughter and I had raising an abandoned swift chick many summers ago.