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Living the Dream
by Mary Cook

It never occurred to me that writing was a business. I thought it was about baring your heart and soul and spilling your guts for good measure. No wonder it took so long to make a major sale. But that first sale was to spawn an entire writing career.

My husband and I had begun living the dream of a self-sufficient lifestyle only to find it was more of a nightmare. Home was a "plotlands" development about 40 miles from London, England.

Plotlands were areas of poor agricultural land sold cheaply between the two World Wars as building plots. Families bought the plots to build weekend homes. The developments later became full-time homes to whole communities. After the Second World War, residents were lured into nearby towns by such luxuries as mains electricity and flushing lavatories. Plotland communities collapsed and their houses followed suit.

When we arrived on the scene in 1980, the area belonged to a development corporation who planned to turn it into a nature park together with a plotlands museum. We persuaded them to let us have one of the few remaining houses at a reduced rent. In return we would act as wardens.

Our venture was part experiment in simple living, part necessity born of poverty. We spent four years trying to live off the land while making improvements to the house - a shed with delusions of grandeur.

The self-sufficiency plans were slow to take off, so I aimed to earn an additional income through writing. That was equally slow in taking off!

Following the age-old advice to beginners: "write what you know," I decided to write an article on our life as latter-day plotlanders, comparing our experiences with those of the early settlers. I spent many hours in the local library collecting historical data.

It pains me to admit it, but I'd never read my target magazine, The Countryman. An old established UK publication, it featured nostalgic articles on country living. I'd sneaked a look at it on the newsstands, even flicked through a friend's copy, but that was all.

Having no clips to my name, I submitted the article on spec and it was immediately accepted. I was less surprised then than I am in retrospect. I must have committed every crime known to the beginner and still made a sale. I can only assume the unique perspective of my story outweighed my inexperience.

I've since learned a number of lessons from both the strengths and failings that resulted in that first sale:

1. Research thoroughly - starting with the market research

I should have read The Countryman before I started. And not just read it but dissected and analyzed its content - including that all-important clue to its readership, the adverts.

I've now learned to save time on research by incorporating it into daily living. I collect material on subjects that interest me wherever I happen to be, rather than treat research as a thing apart.

2. Forge useful contacts

Sounds mercenary, but you must cultivate and use acquaintances. As a voluntary warden, I'd worked closely with the corporation's paid staff. They fast-tracked my requests to borrow their employers' old photographs of the early settlers. Never underestimate the power of well-chosen illustrations in making a sale.

3. Use language frugally

Sparse writing is saleable writing. I shudder today at my florid opening sentence: "The gardens of dead houses smolder in sepia or glow pink through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia."

Did I really write that? It should have come with an airline sick-bag.

On the plus side I'd managed to recount the area's history, our home improvement and gardening projects, the trials of living without modern conveniences, the conversion of our house into a museum, and our eventual move away from the area, all in less than 2,000 words. And, oh yes - I included some natural history notes.

There were also lessons to be learned for the long-term:

1. Recycle your work and write spin-off articles

From that single early feature I've expanded and elaborated on its various aspects, selling over the years numerous articles, poems and short stories on topics ranging from hedging and fencing to beekeeping and birdsong.

2. Use personal experiences to make sales

There's nothing like working at something to give you the confidence to write about it. Now semi-retired, I plan my work on a seasonal basis, carrying out self-sufficiency projects during the summer months and writing about them throughout the winter.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from that first sale is to learn from mistakes while building on successes.Convert your experiences into dollars and ride your hobbyhorse all the way to the bank.

© Copyright 2005, Mary Cook

Mary Cook is a UK-based freelance writer, columnist, editor, and former newspaper reporter. whose articles, poems and short stories have appeared in numerous publications, both in print and online. She has worked as an overseas correspondent for the Tokyo-based Hiragana Times, as well as a spoof agony aunt for an adult publication.

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