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Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.
Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.
So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.
Good first-hand accounts
Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.
There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.
What everybody else may already know
If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.
Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.
Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.
Befriend an expert
Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.
You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.
What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!
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The strangers in our photos are the people we aren’t meant to notice. People we tune out. I never gave them a thought until I read about the British artist Polly Morgan, who, when she was a kid, went through family photos, cut out the walk-ons and made a gallery of them on her bedroom wall.
I love this idea. All these anonymous people, abundant as traffic and trees, appearing accidentally in our private photos.
Who were they? While Dave and I walked around the museum, the lady with the handbag was on her own mission. She had a chain of events that brought her to this place and she went on to do something else afterwards. What was it?
A lot of writers talk about the inspiration they get from overhearing conversations, but it seems to me that a picture is worth a thousand eavesdropped words. And our photo collections are full of them. The person you didn’t intend to take a picture of is waiting to have their story told.
This is a fun exercise on its own but it can also be useful for our novels. When we’re writing, we often find we have gaps in our story world. Sometimes we need a ‘purposeful nothing’ for a character to do when they go for a think, or a route they can take to the gym or work. Insignificant, low-key stuff, but if it’s not there the world of the story doesn’t feel real. The characters live in a void like an undecorated film set.
In daily life, we get used to tuning things out, which is perhaps why writers have to make a special effort to flesh out a world. Who’s that in the distance, sitting on a bench in a square in Fontainebleau, while I’m taking a photo of Dave? Did she need to think of a place to meet her best friend for a heart to heart?
So I’m ending this post with an exercise. Either tell me how you find insignificant but useful locations, or write a little piece about the strangers in the pictures here. Or do this with a pic of your own on your blog, link to it here – and we’ll all come and see. (That’s a blog hop, isn’t it? Never done one before.) Let the fun begin…
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- Slow-burn books, publishing misfits and separation anxiety – interview at Henry Hyde’s blog March 21, 2017
- Dear me: how fiction authors adapt to writing memoir March 12, 2017
- The blank page – conquering your fears. And a couple of writing prompts February 26, 2017
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- Literary writers, we are not alone – meet Main Street Writers February 10, 2017
- ‘You get an idea and… it just grows’ – interview with book and writing blogger Michelle Dunton February 6, 2017