Let’s get personal

800px-QWERTZ_swissNow and again people will tell you that some of the best writing comes from personal experience – to which I would add, yes, and some of the worst as well.

People tend to overestimate how fascinating their own experiences are to the reader – if you are not careful you can lose the dispassionate quality you need to write well because you become too wrapped up in writing about yourself. It can be done of course – but fiction should be just that, it doesn’t have to be real.

Of course, the basic notion that, if you write what you know, you are less likely to make catastrophic and often comical errors of fact or tone has some basis in reality. But it ignores the fact that most decent writers are capable of doing the research required to fill the gaps in their knowledge which would allow them to write convincingly about a topic.

In the internet age everyone has a huge depth of knowledge a mouse click away and, unless that person is too lazy to live, they don’t need to worry too much about what they don’t know at the outset. That’s before they have even walked down the road to the library.

So you don’t need to be a train driver to write about driving a train. Which is very handy for crime authors in particular who don’t all have to commit mass murder in order to turn out their thrillers. That’s not to say that a deep and immersive experience of some aspect of life might not give you more understanding of it. But a writer’s trade is primarily writing – and research, getting inside a topic, is a crucial part of that.

The ‘write from experience’ advice is often given to kids in school when they are asked to tackle some rudimentary creative writing – I remember being given it as gospel myself. And, if you took it to heart, it would close down so much of your imagination. Fantasy writers would be particularly at a loss, few of them having had personal experience of interacting with orcs and dragons.

So take it with a sack of salt I would say kids.

But, while I’m arguing that personal experience isn’t that much of a big deal for a writer – I simultaneously believe it is very important indeed.

The tension caused by believing these two contradictory things at once is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. And no, I’m not a doctor, I looked it up on Google – works like magic doesn’t it!

The type of experience I think is crucial is life experience. Though we can deftly summon up a dragon or a murder through a combination of imagination and reading around the subject, do you think it would be possible to write convincingly about being in love if you never had been? Or to write about jealously, or rage, or joy?

432px-William_wordsworthEmotional authenticity in a book does not come from reading a Wikipedia page it comes through living and the process of getting it down on the page is perhaps what Wordsworth was talking about when he referred to ’emotion recollected in tranquillity.’

It’s not as though you often sit at a word processor thinking – ‘right – let’s describe sexual jealously for this bit’ but you might often have to know how a character feeling that emotion behaves, what they do, what they say or don’t say – and how their behaviour impacts on the world around them.

This emotional intelligence is what you can’t fake and can’t research as a writer I believe, it leaves a gap and that’s where your personal experience floods in.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.


A sense of place

How important is the place where you set your book or story? Very important I would say, vital even in some cases.

If varies from book to book of course but there are novels where the place where the story is set becomes almost an extra character in the drama – and perhaps my book Song of the Sea God is one of those.

A strong sense of place is a fine thing to have in a book I would say. It’s not achieved by never-ending descriptions of the scenery, but by allowing the feel of the environment to permeate the people and the story, allowing  the nature and character of the setting to have a bearing on the action.

41eMuQLZJSL__I had a think about books where this works particularly well and one which immediately springs to mind is Waterland by Graham Swift. This book, set in the Fens area of South East England is a modern classic and I would urge you to give it a look if you have not done so already.

The spirit of the fenlands issues from the novel so strongly that you can almost feel the damp chill rising from the page. The place in the book is beautifully drawn and affecting but more than that, it influences the people who inhabit the story – it provides some of their motivation, explains aspects of their character.

41mjW4FdUGL__SX385_There are many other examples of course. Can you imagine Gabriel Garcia Marques setting his magic realist masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude in a council estate in Birmingham? It needs its heat, its jungles, its clouds of butterflies, and of course its solitude.

housekeepingAnother good example is Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Housekeeping where the emptiness and open spaces of America, the small towns, the yearning to leave, the ability to just disappear like a ghost into the big country, permeate the book and its characters.

In Song of the Sea God I chose the island where I was born to set the book – Walney off the coast of Cumbria in the UK. It is a place I know well but a 432px-William_wordsworthremembered place rather than my current home.

Wordsworth, who lived a few short miles away in the Lake District, talked about poetry being ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’ and I suppose my impressionistic view of Walney Island in the book is based on that idea.

I took the stark, often beautiful scenery and put it in the book and I remembered the way the bleakness, the isolation, the rigours of the place, can affect the people, lending them a certain stoicism.

What are your favourite books with a strong sense of place? Please tell us about them in the comments.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.