The majority of ‘how to’ books and articles on writing tend to tell you two things, and quite firmly at that: write about what you know, and don’t write an autobiography as, unless you’re famous, no one wants to know. That might sound contradictory. After all, what you know comes directly from your experiences, so if no one wants to hear about that, how can you write about what you know?
Moreover, there’s no way H. G. Wells knew about or had experienced time travel or invaders from Mars, but he wrote about those things, and quite successfully too as it happens.
The thing to bear in mind is that ‘what you know’ is not necessarily the same as a story of your life. If it was, I would never have written the books I have, because, quite frankly, to an outsider (even to me at times) my life, like so many other people’s lives, are downright ordinary and often boring and mundane. Not the stuff of novels, you’d think.
Then you’d think wrong. The general trajectory of people’s lives can seem everyday and unexciting, but it’s the tiny nuances that make them interesting – the people you meet, the little events that make up the fabric of your life, the knowledge you absorb, which is the magic fairy dust which adds sparkle and individuality to your writing.
No one has lived your life. No one has had quite the same experiences as you, though many will have had similar. No one has quite the same mind-set as you. We might share ideologies, political allegiances, familial relationships, jobs, being single, being happy, being lonely, being rich or poor; in fact we share these many attributes with millions of people around the globe. But we all view each of these aspects of our lives, indeed the world, in a subtly different way.
It goes without saying that everyone has a mother and father, for instance. The relationship you have with yours is not going to be the same as that I have with mine. There are too many variables for that to happen. Good or bad, that makes each relationship unique, and in turn makes your experience unique. This is the same for all aspects of your life. Far from being mundane or ordinary, your life might not seem it, but it is a rich vein of experience which you can mine to your advantage.
Let’s take characterisation as an example. Characterisation is the key to every good or great or classic novel (of which I’ll go into more detail at a later time). It’s the bedrock on which any story is based. Without good characters (the reader doesn’t have to like them, by the way), characters which they can empathise with, recognise as real, living, breathing people, you might as well try baking a cake without flour.
To give your characters depth, you need to give them thoughts, experiences, a past life which has influenced them, and the way they interact with other characters, verbally or non-verbally, will paint a picture in the reader’s mind as to what makes them tick. It will make them feel real.
Use your individual experiences, your own thoughts, those of people you’ve known, those of people you’ve read about, to give your characters that much needed fully-rounded feel. Bring your unique take to their fictional lives. You don’t have to give them your exact life, or that of your friends (or enemies!), but you can draw on those.
Let me give you an example. When I was a young kid, we saw a bird feeder in someone’s back yard and on that feeder was a chunk of coconut. Well, we’d never even seen a real coconut before so we made our younger brother (we made him do everything) nip over the fence and take it down so we could try it. Actually, it wasn’t as good as we thought it would be. Rather soapy. But we were all aware that technically we’d stolen something, and that was very bad! In my book ‘Max’ I had the main character doing exactly the same, climbing over the fence of a teacher’s wall to get at the coconut. The teacher comes out and beats the kid about the head, putting him in hospital and providing a link crucial to understanding the book. I used the incident from my childhood and yet changed it so that in the end it wasn’t really my life at all.
Novels are like colouring books. Thousands of the same one are printed, but each one will be coloured in differently by its owner. That’s the trick. Take your experiences – what you know – and use them to create something unique to you but yet engaging enough for others to make them want to keep reading.
But beware of slipping into autobiography or that the character you write about is too much you. I will often stop myself and think: ‘Is this the character thinking this, or is it me? Would they think (or talk) like this? If I think it’s more me, I’ll rewrite it. You character has to be independent of you. The writer’s voice should not intrude, as they say. But more on this when I go deeper into characterisation!
As for H. G. Wells writing about time travel, he wasn’t. Okay, so technically he was. But Wells was a socialist. There’s more than a hint of his knowledge and beliefs about the future in the novel if people didn’t wake up to the fact that there were the haves and the have-nots, and that things could get rather bad for the world if we didn’t address contemporary social issues. So he took what he knew – his socialistic views – and he turned it into a story about time travel. The thing is, even non-socialists can read the book and enjoy it, because his beliefs have merely influenced the book not swamped it. Here’s betting the many middle-class characters at the beginning, exhibiting scepticism and indifference to the time traveller’s extraordinary tale were based on people he’d encountered in his real life too.
So your life is unique: allow this to filter into your writing and you will make that unique too.
Go ahead, write about what you know…