On Writing What You Know
When I tell people I’ve written a children’s book about ballet and spies, the first question they ask is, are you a dancer? (Luckily, they never ask, are you a spy? Because then obviously I’d have to kill them).
In fact, far from writing what I know (which is usually the first piece of advice you hear as a newbie writer), I found myself writing about something I didn’t. It was fun dreaming up impossible spy gadgets and evil ballet mistresses, but I was anxious. I wasn’t being authentic.
The truth is my ballet career went down a plug hole – quite literally – age six, but that’s another story. So what did I know about ballet?
I knew it was tough. It was technical. It had a language all of its own. Taking on the subject as a non-dancer, I felt like an imposter. I began to read books with impossibly beautiful photographs, articles on the shoemakers’ craft. I attended adult ballet classes, a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House. I went to see Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. I watched films on tutus, on ballet shoes, on rehearsals – all part of the Royal Ballet’s excellent online resource.
I still felt like an imposter.
It’s no surprise that I didn’t know much about spies either. It’s not easy to research secret agents – they’re, well, secret. My knowledge extended to James Bond movies circa 1979, reading my dad’s library books as a child, and the books my sons loved by Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore. I turned to autobiographies, journalistic accounts, stories about the incredible female spies of the second world war.
It was only when I’d finished my second draft and started thinking about the central themes in Peril En Pointe, I realised that I did know about some things – school, friends, bullies, family, fear, love – that feeling of never being good enough. Maybe if I could convey how Milly felt when she danced – the fear and excitement of being a spy – I could still make my story work?
I also had other experiences I could draw on that related to my story.
I’d lived in London.
Growing up, my grandmother and aunties all performed in the local theatre.
Who hasn’t experienced teachers who have favourites; those kids who always get to play Mary in the school nativity?
I thought back to some of my friends at school; sensitive boys, sometimes eccentric, who despite the tropes, were often best friends with the confident sporty types who got away
with everything. And I recalled an old friend who’d put me up in Singapore for six months. She was kind. She was loyal. She was tiny. She was fierce.
And even though it wasn’t consciously done, a little bit of me is in Milly. We both suffer from imposter syndrome. We both rely on our friends. We both love our mums.
My anxiety began to subside. Perhaps I’d been writing what I knew all along?
PERIL EN POINTE by Helen Lipscombe is out now in paperback
(£6.99, Chicken House)
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