The Man Who Loved Islands
“Write what you know.”
It’s one of the simplest pieces of advice any writer is ever likely to get, but it’s also possibly the most crucial.
I may be nothing more than an amateur writer, but it’s something I love to do and I firmly believe you have to have a passion for it to do it well. By writing what you know, you can help tap into that passion and help to pick up on the nuances that really make a good piece of writing come alive for the reader.
I’ve been writing on and off since I was at school. Although English wasn’t my strongest subject, even at primary school I used to love what they called “creative writing”. Sadly by the time I got to high school I had abandoned that in favour of focusing more on the storytelling than my actual abilities as a writer. So much so that what I did write was done in playscript format, nicely avoiding the need to paint any kind of picture and doing almost everything through dialogue.
Mind you, that may also have been because I was writing Star Trek fan fiction and I found it really difficult to write space battles through anything other than the characters telling you what was happening. Indeed, setting things in space was pretty much a theme of my writing through school! Even those “creative writing” assignments became a challenge in how I could twist the latest story into sci-fi/fantasy.
But the problem with what I wrote back in high school was that it didn’t read well. If you don’t paint that picture for the reader, then it’s difficult to truly engage them. The only place the picture exists is in the writer’s head, and that’s no good to anyone.
My more recent writing has focused more on the non-fiction world of Scottish football. I’ve mainly been blogging, but a few years ago I took on the much bigger challenge of writing a self-published book about Celtic’s 2003/04 season. When it comes to writing what you know, a book about your favourite season of your favourite sport pretty much ticks all of the boxes!
I can’t say it was perfect. If I did it again, I’d probably do certain things differently. Maybe that’s self-critical, but show me a writer who doesn’t reach that point of “will people actually like this rubbish” and I’ll show you someone who probably isn’t taking their writing seriously!
If there was one main criticism I’ve had of that book, it was that it was too dry. It’s packed full of facts and figures and quotes, but for a football book I wasn’t able to get the passion across as I would have liked. The best bits are probably where I veer off to talk about my own memories from certain aspects of that season. That’s when the passion starts to come across, that’s when I can paint the picture for the reader.
Perhaps if I’d focused on that at school more, I would have done a better job. Now that I understand how crucial it is, I could have done something about it. I still could if I had the time, but work and family commitments have severely limited what I can realistically achieve now. It’s a shame, because there have always been plenty of pictures in my head. With a bit of work, I’m sure I could paint those pictures for readers.
One of the best exponents of painting those pictures that I’ve read in recent years is David F. Ross.
A couple of years ago I set myself the New Year’s resolution of reading an average of a book a month in a year. I’d fallen out of reading on a regular basis and I wanted to get back into it. To try and push myself to do it, I tweeted my goal. David, ever the opportunist and someone I knew only through a shared involvement with the then ByTheMin Twitter project, suggested I give his book “The Last Days of Disco” a go.
How could I say no to that?!
I’m really glad I couldn’t. Of the thirteen books I read that year, yes I actually kept to my New Year’s resolution that year, Last Days of Disco was the highlight of the lot.
It was set in an era just after my birth, but it still let me reminisce about my own memories of the decade as a whole as it was clearly an era that David knew personally. Not only that, but it was set in a Scottish town. Again, not my Scottish town, but I could still acknowledge the references – especially about being slightly removed from the big city of Glasgow. I know that particular feeling all too well, having started out life there and moved away when I was young.
But the key for me is that David was able to not only transport me back to an era now long gone, but into a town I could picture in my own head. I couldn’t point to Onthank on a map of Kilmarnock, but I’ve a fairly good understanding of what it may be like – or at least was like – thanks to Last Days of Disco.
So when The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas came out, I rushed to read it. More or less the same early 80s era, a clear overlap of the characters, but a brand new story and one I was fully invested in from start to finish. You always know it’s a good book when you’re disappointed it’s over, and that one built up to a crescendo.
Now, The Man Who Loved Islands completes the trilogy and takes me back to catch up with the likes of Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller and how they’ve been getting on since the Last Days of Disco. Having followed their exploits through that first book, I’m immediately invested in them once more because I genuinely want to know what happens next.
I should say that reading Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas isn’t a prerequisite for reading The Man Who Loved Islands. It definitely helps, but there is more than sufficient exposition in this third book to explain any references. The main difference is instead of thinking “ahh that’s what that’s about” you’ll just have a wry smile as you remember the details of what happened previously.
Without wishing to give too much away, because you really should go and read the The Man Who Loved Islands for yourself, over the course of the first third of the book you’ll find the timeline rapidly catches up with near-present day and therefore goes through a period I’m even more familiar with than in the previous two books. In fact, even after “catching up”, the use of flashbacks works really well to fill in backstory as and when required. That’s a departure from the first two books, and I really like this style when it’s done right as it is here.
It isn’t just Bobby and Joey that we catch up with though. In a blend of the first two books, we catch up with the likes of Hammy May, Max Mojo and eventually the Miraculous Vespas themselves. Indeed, by the end of the book there are even minor characters turning up that make you smile. Characters you wouldn’t otherwise have considered until they show up and then you find yourself wondering why they didn’t come to mind in the first place.
That’s the fictional past of the previous two books of course. When you find yourself thinking “remember when…” about a fictional realm as often as I did reading this book, you know the trilogy has hit the mark.
As with the previous two books, The Man Who Loved Islands has humour laced throughout and there are plenty of moments that made me laugh and get funny looks from people depending on where I happened to be sitting while reading on my Kindle app. Given some of the subjects broached in this book, the humour is sometimes quite dark but more often than not it seems a good way to lighten the mood just when you need it.
And, indeed, this book is probably the darkest of the three. The first two books may have dealt with things like gangland lifestyles and even the questionable mental health of Max Mojo, but this book goes deep into the serious problems all too often encountered by people leaving their childhood behind and being forced to embrace the big bad world of responsible adulthood. Areas that may well overwhelm even the happiest among us from time to time.
But perhaps the greatest triumph of David’s is his use of music. The writing across all three books is so good, you don’t need to know the songs involved. I’ll freely admit I didn’t know most of them. But when a song is referenced that you do know, it only serves to add colour to the picture he has painted. That understanding of how music can almost uniquely invoke images and memories as soon as you hear it is masterfully utilised throughout The Man Who Loved Islands just as it was in its two predecessors.
And, as David himself says at the end of the book, if you haven’t heard the songs then give them a go. There’s a helpful list of them printed at the back to make that easier, and it’s a list of which I’ve been making use.
I would love to have the ability to paint vivid pictures with words in the manner with which David seems to do so effortlessly. Perhaps it’s just the wrong time in my life to be thinking about it. Work and family commitments notwithstanding, as you may have gathered I’m younger that David. Throughout all of these books, David is able to draw on his own experiences and memories, some of which predate my own. He writes what he knows, and he does it to critical acclaim.
As for me? Maybe one day I’ll be able to write what I know, because maybe one day I’ll know more to write.