How to Learn ‘How To’ From Fiction

The Lie of the LandThe Lie of the Land by Sam North

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I chose this book because my novel in progress, The Scottish Exiles, is set on Dartmoor. I live near Dartmoor and can do writing research trips with ease, but I don’t want my story to read like a natural history book. I wanted to see how authors portray Dartmoor in fiction; how they encapsulate its atmosphere. I also wanted to see whether I am on the right track about daily life on Dartmoor: is my character’s life plausible? Am I making it too easy for him? Are his preoccupations representative of the lifestyle? I did get insight into these things, and I will refer to it again when I am later ‘editing for atmosphere’.

But serendipity prevailed, and the best thing about Sam North’s book is the way he describes in such detail all the jobs his farmer character Jane has to do. In some places it almost reads as a list – well not exactly, but it reads a bit like my own ‘To-Do’ list, some of which I write as a ‘Did’ list, in a desperate attempt to give myself a feeling of accomplishment and progress. Jane has endless tasks that have to be performed, seasonal tasks repeated yearly, things breaking that need repair and unexpected crises to deal with. In between she stoically opens a tin of sardines, or eats a lump of cheese or a Mr Kipling Farmhouse cake.

The specificity of the detail is wonderfully entertaining, but it does more. It actually tells you how to do the things – or at least how the things are done. As a child I loved Swallows and Amazons for the sailing technique and camp craft, The Little House in the Big Woods for making maple syrup and butchering a pig and and My Side of the Mountain for tanning a hide and making a bed and mattress. When I began my novel I called it, with humour and inability to classify genre in equal measure, a ‘dystopian agricultural romance’. I wanted it to incorporate a ‘how to’ for things that Davey Kirk has to do living in his off-grid mountain shack, and for Rosa Retallack’s survival skills before she meets him. But my question to the market was: do adults want to read this stuff?

Well The Lie of the Land answers this for me, in the affirmative. Because it is exactly what made this book stand out.

View all my reviews


Author: Cathy

Suburban permaculturist, vegetarian, WWOOF host, Freecycler, Amazon seller, lapsed lawyer, Albaphile, writer, blogger, Radio 4 listener and industrious idler.

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