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Lucy Strange: From Stage to Page

Posted on 30th September 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our Children's Book of the Month for October is The Secret of Nightingale Wood, Lucy Strange's eerily luminous debut that evokes memories of classics such as I Capture The Castle or The Children of Green Knowe. Set in England just after World War One, it tells the story of Henrietta, a solitary girl trying to recover from the devastating loss of her brother. Drawing deep on her love for storybook tales and her belief in her brother's spirit, Henry is taken deep into the woods beyond her home to meet with the only figure who just may be able to save her entire family. Here, the author explores how her training as an actor enriched the writing of the book.

When I was about seven years old, I wrote a story inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales called Once Upon a Time. It was terrible, and I’m not just saying that with the benefit of my grown-up, writerly wisdom: I knew it was terrible even as I was putting the words on the page. I was desperate to become a writer, but I knew that my brain wasn’t yet ready or ‘ripe’ enough to do justice to the stories I wanted to tell. I devoured all the books I could get my hands on over the next decade or two but wrote little more than a handful of half-baked poems, a few rather odd short stories and several hundred angst-filled diary entries.

My storytelling compulsion found an outlet through acting. I joined the drama society at university where I studied English Literature, and then went on to do a postgraduate course at drama school. The thing I really loved about acting was the rehearsal process – finding the most important truths in a play, inhabiting my character and bringing her to life, experimenting with my vocal and physical performance, developing convincing dynamics with other characters ... but I had shocking stage fright. I remember one director telling me I didn’t look like I was enjoying myself under the spotlight at all, and he was right. I wasn’t. For a few years I pursued the acting work nonetheless, certain that this was what I wanted to succeed at. I rarely did well at auditions due to my nerves, but I managed to get a few nice jobs touring schools with Shakespeare plays and a lengthy residency at an interactive museum in which I particularly liked doing emotional monologues in Anderson shelters and performing in the Victorian Music Hall show.

It wasn’t until I moved abroad that I started writing properly. By this time, in my mid-thirties, I was a secondary school English teacher and I decided to start my own blog about the experience of being ‘a reluctant expatriate’. Something clicked into place – the homesickness and nostalgia suddenly gave me access to a writing voice that I hadn’t previously been able to find. I started writing a story set in England just after the First World War, about a twelve-year-old girl called Henry who loves the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm … it has taken three full years for those first tentative chapters to become a beautiful book on the shelf of my local Waterstones.

I have found that my acting training has been invaluable in my work as a writer. On stage I would inhabit my character, but when I’m writing I inhabit all of the characters as I try to develop convincing behavioural responses and truthful dialogue. I find myself unconsciously acting out certain moments to help me find the right physical reactions and gestures. During one particularly sad scene, I had tears running down my face as I wrote it. But I wasn’t moved in the way that a reader of a book might be; it was more that while I was writing the scene, I simply was that character.

My journey to becoming a published writer has been full of twists, turns and false starts. It turns out, however, that many of the detours along the way were not really detours at all. Without being a reluctant expatriate and without my failed career as an actor, I would not have been able to write the book I dreamed of writing, once upon a time, thirty-something years ago …

 

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