Jane Davis: Life Imitating Art

This week - as I'm on holiday in Italy - there's a guest post by the wonderful novelist Jane Davis.  Her first novel 'Half Truths and White Lies', published by Black Swan, won the Daily Mail first novel award;  'I Stopped Time' and 'Funeral for an Owl' are among my favourite reads.  This month, Jane has a new novel out in print and e-book form  - 'An Unknown Woman' - so I asked her to tell us about some of the strange events that happened while she was writing the book.

 ‘If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?’ 

Words Pulled From a Burning Wreckage
Thoughts on the writing of An Unknown Woman

A novel, wrote Henry James for an 1884 magazine article, is “a direct impression of life.” An Unknown Woman is probably the most personal novel I have written to date.

In 2013, I took the decision to cut back on paid work, which meant selling the car and ridding myself of a lot of material baggage. The book is in part an exploration of how material possessions inform our identities. I wanted to tackle the subjects that are relevant to the life I am living now, which bears little resemblance to the life I imagined for myself when I was a child, back when my father told me, “When you’re an adult, you can do exactly as you like.” I consider what it’s like to be childless when the majority of friends have children, even when childlessness is a positive choice; the extension of youth into what was previously thought of as middle age; the feeling of being cut off from adulthood.

The action begins with my main character, Anita, standing outside the house she and her partner have lived in for fifteen years and watching it burn to the ground. It is very recognisably my house.  My partner and I joked about how I might be tempting fate. But it was just a joke. We are not terribly superstitious – although I must admit that we’ve had more near misses in the last year than I’m comfortable with. (There may be some truth in the saying, “You attract what you think most about”.)
Author Jane Davis

Then in February 2014, three months after I finished chapter one, my sister and her husband lost their house and practically everything they owned to the winter floods. She lived on the island on the Thames that you can see in the first photograph in this article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2555658/UK-weather-16-areas-South-warned-flooding-danger-lives-Armed-Forces-battle-save-homes.html
Over a year after the event they are stuck in limbo, living in a rented house with what little they managed to salvage, still waiting the planning permission to start rebuilding their home - and with it their lives. This shattering event made me question if I should abandon the project. I was writing about an imagined scenario that had become a reality for someone very close to me.

Of course, the same could be said of any book I have written - or may write in the future. My favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth’. But the shape of the book I was writing had to change. The other day, I stumbled across this quote: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up the tree, and once they are there, to throw rocks at them.” While Anita finds one hell of a lot of rocks flying in her direction, I chose my ammunition more carefully than I would have done otherwise, replacing a few sharp flints with smooth pebbles.

This certainly wasn’t the first time I have substantially altered the focus of a book during the course of its writing. I’m afraid that anyone who imagines that words show up in the eventual order that they appear on the page of any novel is, in the majority of cases, mistaken. In some ways, the novel in its final form is an illusion. The rabbit pulled out of the hat – or in this case, the few things rescued from the burning house.

Since I don’t plot, my process tends to be very organic. The pivotal moment of a novel may not actually reveal itself until several edits in, or until an editor comments, ‘I see the point that you were trying to make.’ As author Roz Morris says, sometimes it takes a reader to hold the mirror up to your work.
Novels by Jane Davis
With my historical novel, I Stopped Time, I introduced a present-day strand when I realised that I would be unable to say everything that I wanted to in the voice of my main character, model turned photographer, Lottie Pye. And so, the revised premise became the story of how the reclusive Sir James Hastings discovers the mother who abandoned him when she leaves him her photographic work in her will.

With A Funeral for an Owl, it was while I was ironing out flaws highlighted by a structural editor   that I discovered another major issue: I had failed to take account of the fact that it was thirty years since I left school. The behaviour of two of my main characters, both of them teachers, would have been illegal under current Child Protection laws. The stupid thing was that all of the information I needed was available on the local government website, had I realised. Then it struck me that there was a huge opportunity to be had. I could change the focus of the novel: what kind of boy would it take to make two teachers put their jobs on the line? And it gave the plot a new momentum.
In the case of An Unknown Woman, the fire quickly becomes the least of Anita’s problems. It is the psychological fall-out and what happens when she is stripped of her armour that drives the narrative forwards. She has to find the answer to the question, ‘If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?’  And the answer is that we are not the same. But, as with the altered plot of a novel, there can be positives. 

Over to you: Have you ever substantially altered a novel during its writing? Or have you ever written about a subject, only to have something similar happen in your own life?

Author Biography

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when Jane achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she had wanted after all. In search of a creative outlet, she turned to writing fiction, but cites the disciplines learnt in the business world as what helps her finish her first 120,000-word novel.
Her first, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Five self-published novels have followed: I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things, A Funeral for an Owl, An Unchoreographed Life and now her latest release, An Unknown Woman.

Twitter @janedavisauthor
Buy ebook from Amazon http://goo.gl/EaiKXW

By paperback from Amazon: http://goo.gl/8AnAz7

Jane is also one of the 7 authors included in Women Writing Women:  Outside the Box, available from Amazon and all good e-book retailers. 


  1. A fascinating post that has definitely hooked me into several of your novel plots, Jane! Those shots were a chilling reminder of just how severe the 2014 floods were, and we forget that people who make headlines may still be battling with the fallout long after their story has faded from our collective memory.

    Life has not imitated art for me - so far - but when I tipped one of my characters off a ladder, to meet his death while painting an upstairs window, I didn't give a thought to the fact that, from then on, I would feel an eerie tap on the shoulder every time I saw my husband up a ladder...


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