Becoming all things to all

Write what you know It is a popular word of advice we all receive when we set out on our writing journey. Great advice too. The knowledge we gather in the main tends to involve whatever we feel passionate about and that makes great story material. Of course, we all know someone, hopefully only ONE, who goes can go through the night regaling us of their chosen subject, scarcely pausing for breath. So, when starting out, writing about what you know is good advice. Alas, the reading public needs to understand your story within the context of a world that is much wider than ‘what you know’. So, I discovered that this meant I needed to open my life experience so that I had more of ‘what you know’ to write about.

Writing can lead to . . . dancing?

In The Shamrock Key I created a character that dared to step outside my comfort zone and my knowledge by being a dance teacher. At the time, I did neither. Well, at that time, my day job in computing involved the occasional tutoring. However, I did not dance, let alone teach dance. Yet, there I was with this character deciding to be a dance teacher.

Escape your comfort zone.

My work’s notice board had note from Jane telling us all about a local dance school looking for newbies and so off I trotted to research dancing and dance teachers. I had no idea I would soon be taking dance exams, entering dance competitions, performing for audiences and teaching classes, for all ages, around Europe and Scandinavia. Then came the call to audition for a BBC ident featuring Salsa dancing which led to other calls to appear in movies, the best of which was being the new father-in-law to Keira Knightly in Love Actually, which I loved, actually. My writing career certainly led to my dancing career such that, for a time, I struggled to find writing time. Yet, dancing not only opened doors of opportunity, but it also expanded my personality, revealing a side of me I never knew before and helped me fund my degree course in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. All that because I wanted to know more to write more about a character. Thinking about it, how many other characters I can now know havinbg met so many new ones during this process?

Escape your comfort zone.

So the advice is good but should probably be amended to be: write what you know and dare to know more and more. Writers are readers and that tends to be the way we gather much of the knowledge for those things we do not ‘know’, however, nothing quite beats first-hand experience. My tutors advocated always keeping a notebook handy to capture those sudden flashes of inspiration and jot down events, bits of conversations, dreams – anything you may be able to use in your writing. How valuable would this be for a reader?

Avoid being just an observor in your own life.

I am surely not the only writer to know the benefit of stepping into the shoes of a character to deepen my understanding of what it is like to wear their skin. Someone - not sure who just now - said: better felt than telt. Here I recall another character who was a blind-mute young girl in Lewes, UK. I agonised over what her experience would be like as I certainly did not know any of it. Yes, I realised I simple had to leave the ‘girl’ bit to whatever info I could get from interviewing women, but I clamped my mouth shut and went blindfolded to Lewes where my wife and mother-in-law walked took me to a café for tea and cakes. It was truly extraordinary, taking me beyond what I had imagined previously, and I was happy to get back to being ‘not-blind’ and ‘not-mute’ again. My reading and writing friends, I appreciate there are big limitations to gaining the experiences that bring increased story knowledge. That is, in fact, a very good thing when you think of writing about space travel, or life after death, or being an orphaned bear cub called Barnaby. However, gaining as much experience as you dare will feed the imagination and bring the magic readers want to escape into. Won’t that suffice?