Jodie Sandiford shares her insights into why to read before you write and the importance of finding inspiration in unlikely places.
The motto of any specialised genre is to read before you write. That is, don’t try to write a budding romance if you’ve never had experience of one, or read about it. Also, don’t try fantasy if you don’t know magic. And especially not if the only fantasy book you’ve ever read is Harry Potter. It limits your creativity to what you think is acceptable, rather than having a well-read knowledge that lets you go further.
My first serious piece of writing was a 44,000 word novella, Ghost Train. It was about a teenage boy who woke up on a train where people went to die. But apart from the aspect of the train’s ability to curse its inhabitants with an imminent death, it didn’t have any magic. It had lost rings, and underage pregnancy, and evil uncles, but no magic. Because I didn’t know how to write it – I hadn’t read any good fantasy yet.
So I started. While my teacher read GT and commented on the abundance of description (too much, apparently), I read about vampires and werewolves and faeries. And the first proper fantasy story I read was D. J. MacHale’s Pendragon, which could be argued as sci-fi but that I always assumed was fantasy. We bought it at the airport bookstore at the end of our holiday to Florida when I was seven, and my dad ordered the rest online afterwards, one by one as they were released. Two minutes into Bobby’s adventures, I was positively hooked.
And so about two months into primary seven, I started something new. Ghost Train was put in a drawer and mostly forgotten about and I started building Utalentia, the world which eventually became the home for Time Heals Nothing. It had everything, from dragons to dungeons to gory executions for the traitors. In my head I attached most of the characters to people I knew, cutting and pasting bits of personality together until I got something fresh and exciting that I held onto long into secondary school.
Then, while sitting in rehearsals for the school show a few years ago, I started talking. Anyone who knows me will say I talk incessantly. Anyway, and I was talking to one of the English teachers (not mine, he was busy directing) and we had nice long conversations about the story. Until, of course, one day she turned round and asked to read it – the first proper beta reader I’ve ever had!
And it’s people around me who inspire me – watching everyone work so hard on school shows and concerts, or when someone says something funny that I think a character would say. Writing prompts online are all good and well, but being able to create such diverse, complicated characters to work with has made it so that they feel real, solid. Almost as if I didn’t create them at all, but they’ve just been hiding in the corners of my mind, waiting to come out onto the page.