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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
© 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.