Stronger Fiction: Should you write what you know or know what you write?

One of the oldest pieces of advice for people who want to write fiction is that they should “write what they know’. This sage piece of wisdom is passed down from teachers to young pupils, from tutors to college students and in many creative writing classes. Yet, what does it actually mean? And is it a piece of advice worth following?

Write what you know

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Writing what you know suggests that the writer can not step outside their own experience. It suggests that their writing should be autobiographical in nature and always include a piece of themselves. While it could be good advice to write about what you know, if you were a former pirate, sailing the high seas who accidentally kidnapped a prince, more normal people may find it more difficult. Most people’s lives are fairly ordinary and there doesn’t seem to be much room for excitement.

Directing someone to write what they know, ignores the rich imaginations that most writers have. We can imagine what it is like to walk on a strange planet or to dive deep in the oceans. We can imagine how things could turn out when you meet the one person that you have always wanted to meet – even if it has never happened to you. I would not recommend that writers always stick to writing what they know or what they have experienced.

Knowing what you write is a different thing. Here, writers research before they write and use it to help create the story. You may not know everything before you begin to write, but you may have done some research and use it to help the story along. You may need to stop and make notes of further knowledge you need, but you can begin the story and leave gaps. This will enable you to slot in extra research, which will enrich the story. The best research fits seamlessly in the story.

Call on your emotions for your writing

We have all experienced emotion in one form or another, even if we have not experienced a specific event such as losing a parent or having our heart broken. Most people understand what it can be to fall in love, to like somebody who doesn’t know you exist or somebody unattainable like a celebrity. Using the emotions that you have felt during your life is a good use of writing what you know. It can enrich your writing and bring your characters to life.

Another variation on this rule is to write what you read. This is some of the best advice that a writer could be given. If you already read and enjoy a particular type of genre, then you will enjoy writing it too. If you don’t read, then how will you know what you enjoy and which type of book calls to you on a deeper level? Being a reader is the first step to becoming a writer.

Do you write regularly? Do you think that you should write what you know or were rules made to be broken? Comment below.

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Secrets of Stronger Fiction – more realistic bad guy/girl

Please note there are some spoilers in this blog post in the interest of creating stronger fiction.

Many adult stories do not contain a definitive bad guy.girl. In many children’s stories you will find a baddie character – someone who sees it as their life goal to thwart the main character and make their life difficult. Sometimes that evil character is just out-and-out bad, but sometimes, they are more morally ambiguous. This makes for stronger fiction.

Harry Potter series

For example, in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, the evil-doers are evident from the start. Even the reluctance to name him (he-who-should-not-be-named) points to the fact that Voldemort is not someone that you would like to be best friends with. Some of the other characters who support him are not so clear cut (and some are!). Draco Malfoy, for example, hates Harry with a loathing and the feeling is mutual. Draco tries to kill Dumbledore and this reinforces that he is evil. However at the end of the books, Draco is rather a pathetic figure who has been damaged by the evil that he has done. Dorothy Umbridge, however is definitely evil, but Professor Snape is eventually revealed to have been working for the good forces, for all he disliked Harry.

Of all the characters in Harry Potter that appear to be evil, Snape is the most interesting. At the start he is always there to catch Harry out, his allegiance as head of the house of Slytherin gives him a vested interest in taking points off Harry and therefore Gryffindor, his rival. But as more of Snape’s story is known: his closeness to Harry’s mother Lily at one point and how he felt when Janes and Lily got together gives the reader a sympathy for him by the time of his last scene.

Matilda

The best stories have a mix of characters including those who are borderline. Matilda by Roald Dahl has a very definite bad gal in Miss Trunchbull, the angry headmistress who hates children. Miss Trunchbull is tall and broad and uses her size to intimidate both the children and teachers. Everyone that is except for Matilda. Matilda is able to use her new powers to scare Miss Trunchbull and protect her friends. But while the headteacher is a very obvious evil person, less so are Matilda’s parents. These two people are self-centred and not above indulging in criminal activity. They don’t seem to care very much for their daughter and even less for her schooling. They are not as vicious as Miss Trunchbull, but because they ignore Matilda instead of chucking her in the chokey, does that make them any better?

Matilda knows her parents’ failings and they do not seem to affect her, but neglect could be a very serious thing for her. Thankfully she has met Miss Honey who is prepared to take her on and love her.

Artemis Fowl

The Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer introduces a character who self-identifies as a criminal mastermind, or at the very least an anti-hero. He aims to steal to further his own ends, but finds himself in trouble when stealing from fairies, more specifically a police fairy known as Holly Short. Artemis may have started out as evil (how can you help it after being named Artemis), but he fairly quickly finds himself being forced to do the right thing. Throughout the series of books, he finds himself involved in a number of scary escapades, but usually on the right side of the fairy police. Incidentally, the books introduce Opal Koboi, a narcissistic pixie who is capable of far more evil actions than Artemis, himself.

Which characters are your favourite bad guys/gals and why?

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Secrets of Stronger Fiction 1: Characters who run against normal society – Anne with an E

I am not only a writer, I am a reader. I love a good piece of historical fiction, where the details take you back in history, the sights and the smells and the experiences of people long ago fill the story with the results of a writer’s long hours of research.

Some of my favourite characters are historical characters from the novels that I first encountered as a teenager. Many of these do not need such research, as they were written in their time. I love reading about characters that stand out from the crowd for their time – I always feel as though I would have loved to know them.

Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables by L.M.Montgomery

The series of stories about Anne see her grow up from an orphan of about 11 into a young woman, then a mother and beyond. Anne is not a normal little girl, at least to the good mothers of Avonlea, who fear what she is teaching her daughters. Anne’s unconventional upbringing has meant that she knows a lot more about life than some of her sheltered friends, but her heart is kind and her creativity brings her the admiration of her friends. The book was first published in 1908 and is set on Prince Edward Island. Many of the descriptions in the book are based on real places on Prince Edward Island and local people there have set up tours and a museum based on the book.

Anne is a typical 11 year old who gets into trouble, but she is always supported and loved by Matthew Cuthbert, the farmer who adopted her. His sister Marilla is quicker to judge, but she always supports Anne in the end. Some of Anne’s difficulties involve dying her hair green instead of raven black and accidentally getting her best friend drunk on what she thought was raspberry cordial but turned out to be currant wine.

The contrast between Anne, who has no idea who her parents were: they are just names on a birth certificate, and her classmates on Prince Edward Island is large. Anne’s best friend Diana, is expected to attend finishing school and marry well. This is an old-fashioned ideal for the time, but Diana’s parents are very conscious of their social position. She is not allowed to continue school, even though she has the brains to do so.

Anne has no thought of her looks apart from the things she despises about them. She hates having red hair and breaks her slate over her classmate, Gilbert’s head when he calls them, ‘carrots’! She also dislikes her thin frame and pale skin and freckles. She only cares about her brains and works hard to stay at the top of the class with Gilbert. The two of them have quite a rivalry when it comes to school work.

Anne of Green Gables and the sequels that have followed, have endured as a classic for a very long time. The story of the orphan boy who turned out to be a girl is full of heart, emotion and character you care about. Anne is easily identifiable with, and so are many of her classmates. The stories stand as a testament to the strength of the cast of characters as well as its leading lady.

Writers’ Notes

What can writers learn from Anne of Green Gables?

LM Montgomery wrote the story from a newspaper headline that caught her attention

Writing an unconventional character can bring your story to life

Writing contrasting characters can help bring the story along.

Bringing characters into the story that oppose your main character is a great way to introduce conflict to the plot

You never know where your idea might come from next!

Keep an eye out for interesting headlines in your local papers – could you turn one of them into a short story or even a novel?

Who is one of your favourite characters in literature and why? Comment below and let me know.

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7 retro blog posts you might like to check out

7 retro blog posts

When you’ve put a lot of effort into writing your blog posts, it can be difficult to lose them off the top page and awkward for visitors to your page to find and read them, unless of course, they found them through searching a specific topic in Google. So it is good to occasionally write a blog post review to search through your blog and find some of the highlights that may enjoy seeing the light of day again.

I have enjoyed searching through my blog and finding some of my highlights from recent years. Many of these were from a 30 day blogging challenge I undertook in 2016. Definitely think it’s time for another one!

  1. Great Hero Character Names

In this blog post, I wrote about some of my favourite character names in novels and why I liked them.

2. My Top 10 Fictional Villains

What is a hero without a villain to try to foil them? These are some of my favourite villains, but I know there are many more.

3. Writing Prompts, Story, part 1 and Story part 2, and Editing a Story

I’m cheating here – there are actually 4 blog posts in one go: writing prompts and parts 1 and 2 of a story. I had fun creating this. Then I wrote a further blog post, explaining how I might edit the story, having read it back and analysed what I had written.

4. Procrastination and the Writer

This blog post was one of the most popular on my blog at one point. I think it chimes with most people who want to be writers.

5. 30 Ways to find Blog Post Ideas

For those days when procrastination is at its highest…

6. Six Girl BFFs in Fiction

I love a story with a really good girl BFF in it and here are some of my favourites.

7. Ten of the Best Bromances in Fiction

You can’t leave the boys out! Here my top ten bromances in fiction too.

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The Writer vs the Blank Page

Writing vs the Blank Page

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” (Jodie Piccoult)

It can be tough settling down to work, but there is nothing worse, as a writer, than settling down to write, then realising that you don’t know what you want to say. Facing a blank screen or blank page is almost guaranteeing that your brain will go blank too!

When I was young, there was something enjoyable at school about turning over a fresh new page to write on. I used my best handwriting, carefully drew the curliest ‘y’s and ‘g’s and tried to make sure that my work looked good. As a writer, there have been times when I have found myself with a little valued writing time, opened up a document and – nothing! All words have left me and it can feel very frustrating!

So why do writers put this pressure on ourselves? Why do we panic when faced with a blank page and what can we do about it?

There may be a few reasons why we freeze:

  • we genuinely don’t know where we want to go next in our writing
  • we are starting a new project but don’t know where to start
  • we need to do some research before we start writing
  • some other reason

Where do I go next in my writing?

You’ve opened up a blank document, but you really haven’t a clue where to continue on with your writing. How can you find a way around this and use your writing time productively? A good idea can be to always leave your work at a point where you have an idea where it is going to go next. So you are writing a story where the main character is going to visit her friend and chat about the leading love interest. If you leave your story where the main character knocks on the door of her friend, then you have something to start writing about straight away when you come back to your work. If however, you finish work at the end of a chapter, then it can be harder to come back in to a completely new one.

Similarly, if you are writing an article, try to write down some planning and research points rather than just plunging into the first paragraph. Of course, if a great idea for the first paragraph comes to you, then write it down, but if you normally find it hard to get going, then it is best to anticipate this and make sure that you are able to write something down. Often just getting going is a good way to overcome the blank page.

Starting a new project

Sometimes you want to start a new project, but you don’t know where to begin. You might have fragments of a story in mind, you could have an idea for a new blog post or you may have found a great title that you want to use in a piece of writing. The idea is sketchy and you are unsure where to go next with it.

Again, the trick is to release the pressure on yourself. No one is able to write a perfect first draft, so don’t worry if it’s a bit rough. Write notes, sketch out some characters or interview them, write some outlines, play with the concept. For blog posts, you can check out what other writers have written on the subject, to get some width on the subject, play with the title and list out the points you want to make. Try to always have something on the page, even if it eventually gets deleted.

Need to do some research

Some writers just go straight into a piece of writing, then they come up against a blocking point where they need to research in order to finish it. As a writer, you could look at the positive side – at least you wrote something down and are not faced with a blank piece of paper! By all means, go and find the answer to your question in a text book or search engine. Your work will be waiting for you when you come back. Sometimes it takes longer than you think to find the answer to something, so before you leave your work, write down some markers so that when you come back to it, you will be able to pick up your thought thread. Nothing worse than coming back to a piece of work, only to realise that you have absolutely no idea what you were going on about. Almost worse than that blank piece of paper!

Something Else

Insert your own reason here – for whatever reason, you find yourself facing a blank document with the blank brain to match. However, if you’ve been smart and paying and attention, you will have realised that this doesn’t need to be the case! You can leave yourself notes, character sketches, research notes and references or anything else that will help you pick up the work when you come back. If you are writing whole blog posts, then decide what the next topic is going to be and leave a title on a piece of paper along with a couple of references to remember where you planned to go next.

There is no need for a writer to be afraid of that blank piece of paper. It is just a blank page, waiting to be written on. If you find beginnings hard, then always start your beginning before ending your work for the night. Then you should always be able to spend that unexpected but welcome piece of writing time, productively.

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Day 26: 30 Day Blogging Challenge – Author Websites Worth Visiting

These days it is recommended that authors have a website. Some are almost purely bibliographies, lists of their published books, a brief ‘About’ page and some contact details for literary festivals.

Mah Bookshelf by kreezzalee on Flickr CC
Mah Bookshelf by kreezzalee on Flickr CC

Other authors clearly enjoy the process: they add extras like FAQs, podcasts of interviews and reprints of newspaper articles. I really enjoy checking out these websites: they offer the would-be writer so much more than just a book list.

When I find a new author I like, then I love to head over to their website and see what they will be doing next. Here are five author websites that I really like and would recommend that you visit and take a look around.

  1. Philippa Gregory is an historian who writes historical novels including The Other Boleyn Girl. Her website is great for those authors who are looking to write historical novels because she includes fascinating bits of history research on it. To access them, check out the purple tab: News & More.
  2. Michael Morpurgo has a fascinating website, full of tidbits to click on and interesting items. He has an amazing back catalogue of written books, including the now famous ‘War Horse’ and his website is well worth a look.
  3. Joanne Harris has long been one of my favourite writers – I love her books. Her website talks about her job and gives some useful information for someone looking to book an author for a visit.
  4. Julia Donaldson has written about the Gruffalo, the Gruffalo’s Child, Room on the Broom and many others. Her website is great for sheer amount of many different things that she writes. It’s also a very bright and colourful website.
  5. Anthony Horowitz has written the Alex Rider series, and more recently a couple of books based on Sherlock Holmes. His website has some good advice for writers and is very enjoyable to read through. Again, the amount of different projects that he gets involved in is breathtaking. He has written film scripts and TV scripts as well as novels for both teenagers and adults.
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30 Day Blogging Challenge: Day 9 Book Review: Writer Time Management Book by Kathleen McGurl

I interviewed author Kathleen McGurl on my website last year. She has written hundreds of short stories and moved into writing full novels in the past few years. Her website is interesting and talks about her writing life, and among the books she has written, there is a time management book called, Give up Ironing – a Writer’s Guide to Time Management.

The number 1 reason people give for not writing is that they don’t have time. Kathleen has taken note of this and written a short time management book, so that excuse does not get in the way of reading this book. Her aim is to show would-be writers that if writing is important enough to them then it is possible to find time to write. Her first section talks about freeing up time to write and encourages the reader to look at what they do with their time and decide their priorities.

The second section deals with making the most of your writing time, encouraging good preparation and ensuring that when you find time to write, you are able to do so. There is nothing worse than finding that you have half an hour to write, then finding that you are unable to decide what you want to write. These days, you can find yourself turning to social media or constantly checking emails rather than settling down to write. Personally, if I’m trying to get things done, then I find it best to turn off the notifications. Kathleen suggests ways to maintain your discipline to ensure that your writing time is used just for writing rather than other things.

Her final section talks about motivating yourself to write. She suggests ways to help yourself make the most of each writing session and ways to treat yourself when you have achieved what you have set out to achieve. She covers finding time to exercise which is essential as writing is such a sedentary activity and the importance of finding time for your family as well as reading which is so important for a writer. As you may be able to gather from the title of the book, however, Kathleen does not consider ironing as a vital activity that she should be doing instead of writing, in fact she is quite happy to give it up and makes here opinions quite clear. Finally she does emphasise that not all her tips will work for everybody.

Give up Ironing is a very readable self-help book for writers. It is full of good advice, short and to the point and written by someone who has a full-time job and a family but who is managing to write as a career. I would recommend it for people who want to find more time to write and who may feel that they need a push to get their fledgling author career off the ground. Kathleen herself is very approachable and down-to-earth and her website is well worth checking out too.

Note: The image above is an affiliate link.

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Meet Keith Havers – The Creative Writer Interview

Keith Havers is a short story writer who has had stories published in Take a Break’s Fiction Feast, That’s Life (Australia), The Weekly News, People’s Friend and The Lincolnshire Echo. He also has a short story published in the charity anthology, ‘100 Stories for Queensland’. He is a member of the Trowell Writers’ Trust and Nottingham Writers’ Club. He has had several first, second and third places in their short story competitions over the last few years. In 2008 he was runner up in the National Association of Writers’ Groups annual competition for short stories. In May 2009, he was awarded second place in Writing Magazine short story competition and the entry is available on their website.

You can find Keith on Twitter@KeithHavers

And he blogs at www.grammargrub.blogspot.uk

 

Name:  Keith Havers

Writer Alias (if you are willing to let us know):

I use my real name Keith Havers in all my published work so far. No alias.

How long have you been a writer?

I joined Trowell Writers’ Club in 2006 so I suppose that should be considered my starting point.

Rough idea of where you live.

I live just outside Nottingham.

Do you sell stories/articles to local or global publications?

I sell short stories to magazines which are also published in other countries.

  1. What is the first piece of writing that you remember doing?

I can’t remember the first piece of writing I did but I remember that, as a kid, I was always putting something down on paper. I’ve always been interested in science and technology (I have a degree in electronic engineering) so some of the stuff I wrote was non-fiction but I also had a go at stories and scripts.

  1. What made you realise that you wanted to write for a living?

I don’t actually write ‘for a living’ I have a couple of other jobs as well. I just wanted something else to supplement my income when I realised that my engineering career was coming to an end.

  1. Where was your first story published?

My first published story was in the charity collection 100 Stories For Queensland in 2011. Shortly after that I made my first sale to Take A Break Fiction Feast.

  1. Is there a story that you wish that you had written?

I’m sure we’d all like to have written something hugely successful like Harry Potter or Fifty Shades. You have to keep the dream alive.

  1. What is the one tip that you would give aspiring writers?

Persistence is the key. You have to keep sending your stuff out. Even if it keeps coming back. Re-write it or write something new and send it back out there.

  1. What is your current project?

I don’t have a project as such. I just keep churning out the short stuff, send it off and hope for the best.

 

Thank you, Keith for agreeing to take part in The Creative Writer Interview. I would like to wish you all the best with your short stories.

 

If you are a blogger, freelance copywriter, author or any other kind of writer and would like to take part in the The Creative Writer Interview then email me: sarahthecreativewriter[at]gmail.com

 

 

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The Creative Writer Interviews Kathleen McGurl, UK Author

 

Second novel by Kathleen McGurl
Second novel by Kathleen McGurl

Kathleen McGurl lives near the sea in Bournemouth, with her husband, sons and cats. She began her writing career creating short stories, and sold dozens to women’s magazines in the UK and Australia. Then she got side-tracked onto family history research – which led eventually to writing novels with genealogy themes. She has always been fascinated by the past, and the ways in which the past can influence the present., and enjoys exploring these links in her novels.

When not writing or working at her full-time job in IT, she likes to go out running or sea-swimming, both of which she does rather slowly. She is definitely quicker at writing.

You can find out more at her website, http://kathleenmcgurl.com/, or follow her on Twitter @KathMcGurl .

Name: Kathleen McGurl

Writer Alias (If you are willing to share)  I don’t have one

Rough Idea of where you live: Bournemouth, UK.

1. What is the first piece of writing that you remember doing?
As a child I was always writing stories, often for my own amusement. I
remember starting a novel when I was about 11, which was to be about a
highwayman’s daughter who became a highway-girl herself. I don’t think it
got very far. As an adult I started writing a novel when on maternity leave,
20 years ago, but then my son was born and took up all my time. But I knew I
was always going to be a writer some day. Eventually, when the kids were
both at school, I started writing properly and have not stopped since.

2. Has there ever been an unusual way that a story has occurred to you?
Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere but probably the most unusual was
one which occurred to me while I was swimming in the local pool. What if, I
thought, there was a ghost at the bottom of the pool in the deep end? By the
time I’d completed 40 lengths I had the full story planned in my head. I
sold that one to a woman’s magazine and also included it in my book Ghost
Stories and How to Write Them.

3. What is the best story title that you have never used? Is there a worst?
I am terrible at titles so I can’t say I’ve ever thought of a good one and
not used it. My books tend to have to put up with temporary titles until
they’re almost finished. The Emerald Comb was called The Next Novel for a
long time while I was writing it!

4. Which story would you love to have written?
Anything by Kate Morton. I love her books, especially The Secret Keeper.

5. What is the one tip that you would give aspiring authors?
Keep writing. If you want to be a writer, make sure you prioritise writing
over everything else.

6. What is your current project?
Having just finished my second novel for Carina UK – The Pearl Locket – I
have three more novel ideas to flesh out. At the moment I am not sure which
one I will start writing next, but it’ll definitely be another dual timeline
book as I love writing them!

Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Sarah!

Kathleen McGurl, Author
Kathleen McGurl, Author
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Author Interview – Meet Carys Jones

Carys Jones UK Author
Carys Jones UK Author

This week Carys Jones, author has agreed to answer my Author Interview questions. Carys has written three books about attorney Aiden Connelly in her Avalon series and Prime Deception. She is also about to branch out into Young Adult fiction with her first book, Dare to Dream due out soon. You can find synopses of Carys’ books at her website and they are available at Amazon.   Name: Carys Jones Rough Idea of where you live: I live in Shropshire, England, UK

  1. What is the first piece of writing that you remember doing?

When I was about five or six I used to make little magazines about a stick character called Pod. He’d walk his dog, go to the shops, nothing too exciting but it was my first attempt at storytelling and I used to bind the pages together with staples and charge my poor Dad ten pence for each edition!

  1. Has there ever been an unusual way that a story has occurred to you?

A couple of my stories have occurred to me following a dream. I keep a notebook in my bedside drawer so that if I wake up from a particularly vivid dream I can hurriedly scribble down the details for future use.

  1. What is the best story title that you have never used? Is there a worst?

Some of my story titles have changed once the books were published which probably means that they weren’t the best titles originally; Not All Stars Sparkle became First to Fall and Maggie Trafford Dreams of Armageddon became Dare to Dream

  1. Which story would you love to have written?

It has to be Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews. It is one of my all-time favourite books and is just so powerfully written. The great stories are always the ones which are most evocative, those which stay with you long after you’ve read the final sentence.

  1. What is the one tip that you would give aspiring authors?

Write. Write as much as you can as often as you can. There is no better way to learn about yourself as a writer than to write.

  1. What is your current project?

I’m currently writing the 4th book in my Avalon series, Fourth to Run, and editing my YA novel Dare to Dream prior to its release later in the year.

 

First to Fall by Carys Jones
First to Fall by Carys Jones

 

Second to Cry by Carys Jones
Second to Cry by Carys Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can find out more about Carys at:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tiny_dancer85

Thank you, Carys, for taking part in The Creative Writer author interview.

Subscribe to the newsletter for up-to-date information on this blog.   If you would like to take part as an author/freelance interviewee then email me at sarahthecreativewriter[at]gmail.co.uk

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