Like looking in a mirror?

They say a writer should write what they know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say this and it seems to be the most common piece of advice offered to all aspiring writers. But what does it mean? And does it help you become a better writer?

For a long time this piece of advice made little sense to me. How could a writer faithfully write what they know and at the same time compose stories full of mythical dragons and magic or homicidal serial killers? I get that a former police officer could go on to write some amazing crime thrillers, and a university history professor could write some incredible historical fiction, but this doesn’t exactly hold true for the teacher spending her free time writing about the zombie apocalypse…. Am I being too literal?

It’s highly possible some writers lean heavily on their life or work experience to lend a story an extra layer of authenticity, but, the more I think about it, I‘m convinced writing what you know refers less towards mining the depths of your previous profession and more towards your ability to dig into a rich and abundant well of emotions and lifelike character descriptions. 

Being able to put ourselves in the minds of our chosen characters, imagine their facial expressions, their gestures and personality traits, their habits and actions / reactions is vital for anyone wishing to write a story worth reading. Your readers need to be able to “see” and relate to your characters, empathise with their situation and care what happens to them. To do this we need to provide them with authentic and believable descriptions and enough realism that they can relate and allow themselves to be pulled into the story. 

I’m not sure how everyone else manages this, but my approach leans towards imagining how I would react in a given situation or mimicking gestures I wish to describe and feeling lucky I’m sat in my office where no one else can see the kind of crazy person I’ve morphed into.

I also study people and try to imagine what they might be thinking or saying. As a nurse, I got to see first hand how patients and their loved ones react in a hospital environment. As a mum,  I watch my kids all the time and sometimes I sit on a bench at the park or near the library and watch people interacting with the world around them. It feels a little intrusive at times, but people fascinate me and I can’t help but wonder what thoughts are going through their heads at any given time. 

Finally, if all else fails I turn to research for inspiration. The sources I’m primarily drawn to are books and films, but I’m not opposed to searching the internet for self-help articles and websites that focus on mental and emotional health. I’m forever making notes or highlighting passages in books that are either beautifully written or explain something in a way that allows me to grasp a level of emotion I’ve been unable to describe up until that point. In films I tend to dissect a scene that moves me in some way. By understanding what made the scene so powerful, I’ve been able to discern just how important a persons body language is in conveying a given emotion and then use those cues and mannerisms in my own writing. I can’t be certain, but I feel it provides my work with more depth and accuracy and ultimately a more engaging narrative.

So, that’s me and how I try to “Write what you know”. But what about you? Are you a former NASA astronaut writing about space travel or just a regular Jane trying to bring a reader to tears with the power of the words on your page…?

Love is in the air…

For some of you Valentines Day is an excuse to shower that special someone with cards, flowers, gifts and attention. For others it’s a black hole of loathing with thoughts of revenge and regret and a fervent wish you could squash your useless ex like a bug. For most though, it’s a day like every other and one more opportunity to be grateful for the important people in your lives and to cherish the small moments of love and thoughtfulness I hope you all experience. 

Now, for those of you in a loving mood today, I thought to focus on Love as we know it in fiction! Have I told you my novel is a love story? No, well it is! I’m hoping eventually it will be a fantastic love story full of life’s ups and downs, the little things we do to show we care, the new and the familiar, the lost, the forgotten and the heartbreakingly honest.

Until then though, and because I love a good list… Here are my Top 10 favourite love stories in fiction!

  1. Outlander – Diana Gabaldon
  2. Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness
  3. Me before You – Jojo Moyes
  4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  5. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  6. Call me by your name – André Aciman
  7. The Notebook – Nicholas Sparks
  8. The Time Travellers Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  9. The Fault in our Stars – John Green
  10. Until the end of the World – Sarah Lyons Flemming

I could tell you why they’re my favourites, but I don’t want to spoil them for anyone who hasn’t read them yet and you can make up your own minds as to whether these deserve a spot in your Top 10!

If you don’t have plans for Valentines Day – curl up with a good love story! That’s what I plan to do! If you’re looking for your next read, you could try out one of my recommendations above or check out these other lists here and here. And if you have any brilliant suggestions for me – don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below!

Happy Valentines Day!

Getting the feedback you need…

Having tentatively taken my first steps along the road of writing a novel, it has occurred to me to wonder – is what I’m writing any good??? Should I even bother spending hours and hours on something that may just be “meh”? I noticed last week that, having written my first scenes, I was quite happy with the tone I could see forming… Then a few days passed, I read through them again and wondered what on earth I was doing!

At this point, chucking in the towel feels fairly justified… but then I remember why I’m doing this. I pull on my big girl pants, roll my shoulders, stretch my fingers, tighten the non existent hairband in my short cropped hair and try again. The visual you’re probably sat with now has me chuckling (sorry, not sorry). Seriously though, am I the only one who feels sitting down to write is like preparing to run a marathon? Any who… I digress.

So, I’m sat here in my little writing bubble and wondering if I was half asleep when I wrote my last scene, doubting I have what it takes to be an author – a good one that is – and thinking I should just give in whilst I’m ahead. Can I look at this objectively and see what a potential reader will see? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! I’m already blind to any faults and inconsistencies, problems and pitfalls. I need feedback from someone with fresh eyes. I need a kind, but honest voice of reason that can tell me to forge ahead or pack it in! I need… an Alpha Reader!

Alpha Reader? Yup. Alpha as in first. As in top dog. As in A* reader! A few months ago I had no idea alpha readers even existed. Their job? To read your first fumbling efforts at fiction and tell you what works and what doesn’t. Your alpha reader is someone you can trust, who won’t mind reading your craptastic spelling and grammar and telling you what parts they adored and what parts they didn’t quite understand, what characters they loved and what characters they felt need more attention. Your alpha reader is also someone who will encourage you to keep going and give you some helpful hints.

I’m happy to say I have 3 very lucky (to my mind) alpha readers who have said they are more than willing to read what I write and give me some highly appreciated feedback! This puts me in the “I have the best husband and friends in the world” box and I know you will all agree, writing just got a whole lot easier… Not? Well, maybe not. But at least now I can get a feel for what works outside of my bubble and that will make the next step a little less daunting to take!