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…?

What’s in a name?

veelosvpr_mg_8859“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo & Juliet should by all accounts be a golden rule of thumb – and far be it from me to argue with a master! However, I find myself wondering if the sentiment applies to character names? Would your readers relate to the handsome, kind and sensitive male protagonist if his name was Spike? Likewise would your female antagonist, the bane of practically everyone’s existence, pure evil personified, pack as much punch if her name was Chloë?

It’s obvious to most of us that most names come with a degree of assumed characterisation. Anyone who has ever tried to name a baby will know that it’s incredibly hard to find a name that doesn’t also remind you of a former colleague, an ex, an irritating boss, the next door neighbours dog etc. etc. etc. We are surrounded by names and whilst some we find appealing, others make us cringe and wonder “what were his parents thinking???”.

When you’re writing a novel your characters names are often a reflection of their personalities. We want people to accept the inherent personality traits that “belong” to a given name and create an image of the character that harmonises with the one you are attempting to portray in the pages of your book.

So how do we go about this? Well, looking at what the net says here and there, I managed to unwittingly use some of the basic naming rules. There are plenty of articles out there to give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a breakdown of the steps I took and rules I tried to stick to:

  1. Pick a name that reflects the characters culture, age and personality traits. Do the research and make a list of names that were popular in the country / culture, and decade your character was born in. What do the names mean? Are there cultural expectations connected to your chosen name? Anticipating these factors will allow you to provide your characters with names that feel “real” to your readers.
  2. Avoid hard to pronounce and difficult to remember names. As exotic and appealing as the names may be to you, they may just be too difficult for the average reader to pronounce and remember. Unless you plan to provide a glossary with a phonetic pronunciation guide, maybe pick another name.
  3. Some names are so “famous”, using them would be fairly pointless unless you’re writing fan fiction. If you want your characters to be unique to your novel, avoid names which will remind your readers of others with the same name. Bella, Khaleesi, Bond, Hermione … need I say more?
  4. Make sure your character’s names are indistinguishable from each other. A John, Jack and Jacob all within one plot leave us with a confused reader.
  5. Stick to the naming rules of your genre. Real world characters have real world names. Fantasy characters don’t have to!

At the end of the day your characters are yours and their names are up to you to decide. I found this to be a fun exercise and like naming my children, I found names I fell in love with and that match my characters perfectly! How did you get on?