HOW TO GET STARTED WRITING A BOOK does not always involve cleaning your refrigerator, shopping online, or an urgent organization of your shoes. That’s just me. For more practical help on how to begin writing a book, you’ll want to hear from Jennifer Richardson, whose new memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, is the 2013 Indie Reader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. How proud am I to have her here? I’m thrilled, as thrilled as I am to introduce you here to She Writes Press, one of my favorite new presses. And as much as this is an intelligent, charming and beautifully-written book, it is also a beautiful one. The perfect combo, yes? A fine writer with a great book maker. Lovely. So how to start that book you want to write? Listen to Jennifer.
Writing Lessons: How to Begin
By Jennifer Richardson
Working under the theory that imitation is the highest form of flattery, I turned to the classics of the idyll genre for inspiration when I set out to write Americashire, my memoir about life in the English Cotswolds. I took inspiration from Peter Mayle and Bill Bryson, but it was Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun that gave me a starting point. In particular, it was this detail from the first page of her book: “Through my thin white linen dress, spiky horsehairs pierce me every time I shift, which is often in the hundred-degree waiting room.” Something about the preciseness of that description stuck with me; I could feel the stifling heat, those horsehairs needling the backs of my own thighs.
In this passage, Mayes is describing a visit to a legal office where she will conduct the transaction to buy her now famous Tuscan home, Bramasole. Like Mayes, my story also began with the purchase of a house. And so that’s how I wrote my way into my memoir: I, too, would begin at the beginning. In an early draft, I even referenced the velour stubble of a train seat pricking the back of my knees as I rode the 18:20 out of London-Paddington to spend my very first night in our new Cotswold home after we closed on the deal.
It was many months later when I realized that the beginning of my memoir shouldn’t be the chronological start of my time in the Cotswolds. I was at a writing retreat where, one evening, I was asked to select a passage to read aloud to the group. Instinctively I turned to the opening paragraph of chapter seven, which takes place several months after my husband and I had bought our home in the Cotswolds. The passage grounds the reader in both the landscape of the area, treating it almost as if it’s a character in the story, and lays out the central dilemma of the plot, whether or not I should try to have a child. Why, then, was I making the reader wait until chapter seven for all this? The next day I moved some things around, and the opening of chapter seven became the first paragraphs of my book.
Despite the fact that I changed my opening, imitating what another author I admired had done was useful. It got me started, and once everything was down on paper, rearranging it was a less overwhelming task. It was the difference between putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and creating one from scratch. I also like to think I employed the lesson from Mayes about using small details to bring the reader into your world, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. Below is the opening excerpt from the first chapter of Americashire.
Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, an excerpt
Spring in the Cotswolds happens very slowly and all at once. In exchange for a few cheerful daffodils, the British collectively suspend their disbelief and start to talk of it in March. But spring doesn’t really happen until mid-April on a particular day, when the landscape is dun brown in the morning but by evening you find that green has tipped the balance. Soon lush shag piles of minty-green grass and weeds and shoots and blooms line the country lanes, rising into pea-soup hedgerows, then the brown latticework of trees still bare except for pinch-faced buds. Over the next two weeks, these unwind into a canopy of chartreuse lace, set off by a sprinkling of bluebells on the woodland floor. These are not blue, lavender, lilac, or violet. They are plain purple, the one you get in the Crayola eight-pack.
Rapeseed happens next. Nothing changes the landscape of the Cotswolds more drastically or quickly than the en masse bloom of this flower. It is the color of Ronald McDonald’s jumpsuit or the cheap mustard you get in a plastic packet with your corndog at the beach, a color that should not occur in nature, yet it does. It appears in swathes that render the hills a crude patchwork of yellow and green and drives half the population crazy with its hay-fever-provoking scent. Despite all this, I love it. I love everything about this brash landscape of unrepentant lime greens and artificial-food-coloring yellows, which is why I start to feel anxious about its demise almost as soon as I notice it’s happening. Soon May blossom whites and peachy cones of horse-chestnut blooms will be sneaking onto the perimeter, silently upstaging their raucous counterparts with understated elegance. The Cotswolds of Matisse will slip into the diffused light of the Cotswolds of Monet.
Amidst the ephemeral pleasures of spring in the countryside, there was something else to be anxious about. It was wrapped up in a rectangular pink foil strip with twenty-eight pills sealed inside. There were six of those strips to be exact, one for each month of the renewed birth control prescription I had just picked up from the village pharmacy. For the past few months, my husband, D, and I had studiously avoided speaking any further about the “big talk” we had given to my parents over Christmas in which we had announced I was going to try to get pregnant. To be fair, there was plenty to be distracted by in our new country life. But the truth was my ambivalence toward motherhood had not shifted, despite large quantities of fresh air.
The pink foil-wrapped revelation of my ambivalence shook my husband. A long-held tenet of our relationship was that I was the decisive one, the one who could be counted on to just get on with it. I presided over the world of black and white, the left-brained, the rational. D held court in the domain of the emotional, the intuitive, the creative. He cries in movies; I bring the tissues. He rearranges the furniture; I pay the mortgage on time. In short, my prescription refill was an act of war: I was invading his territory, and he was pissed.
JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 Indie Reader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. The book chronicles her decision to give up city life for the bucolic pleasures of the British countryside. You can find Jennifer Richardson online at the book’s website, follow her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, read more of her on Good Reads, and share with her on Pinterest.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Kim. Congratulations, Kim! I’ll be in touch to send your book.