Writing What You Know

December 11, 2013 11:27 am by

The received wisdom is that you should write about what you know and that may be good advice – to a point.

It’s important to remember that what you know may be strange, surprising and even intensely interesting to others. If you are a Druid, working as a steeple-jack and living on a barge, your life may feel hum-drum to you but there are plenty of people out there who would be fascinated to find out more.

Perhaps you’re thinking, that’s all very well if you are a Druid, steeple-jacking barge-dweller but my job in a call centre wouldn’t inspire anyone, not even me? It’s all to do with how you use the ‘what you know.’

There are universal emotions that resonate with readers from all over the world, no matter what their culture, colour or creed – grief, joy, fear, love, hate, ambition, patriotism – the list is endless.

Imagine you are writing a political thriller set in Switzerland. There’s a dramatic car chase and your hero is being shot at from a helicopter as he drives at a hundred miles an hour along a narrow mountain road. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been further afield than Cricklewood, you can still tap into your own emotions and summon up the fear you felt when your car span out of control on the ice outside Sainsburys. Reliving the helplessness and sheer terror as your car careered towards a brick wall at speed will help you to write a vivid car chase scene. The situation may be different but the emotions experienced are a useful writing tool.

Once you start to think in this way, as a writer, no emotion inspired by a particular situation will ever be wasted.

Of course, if you write fantasy or science-fiction you probably already have a vivid imagination since you need to build a whole new world for your readers. So you have green aliens inhabiting a strange city on a far-away planet under threat of war from red-eyed aliens from another galaxy but how do you make these weird creatures resonate with your reader?

It’s all down to those emotions again. If Mrs Zog enfolds her young in her eight arms, shivering with terror as the red-eyed aliens land in a nearby field, the reader can identify with the fear she’s experiencing. Find the ordinary in the unusual.

To write about what you know, you may need to carry out research so that you know more. Start with the general aspects of your research into your chosen subject and then look out for the small details that add authenticity.

Speak to people about what surprised them most when they travelled to a foreign country and watch films for inspiring locations. Take a real interest in others and find out what makes them different, either in appearance, mannerisms or attitude. And once you know, write about it.

  • You and your life are more interesting than you may think
  • Harness your emotions and experiences
  • Create situations and characters that resonate with your readers
  • Be curious
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