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It's generally understood that many fiction writers have a semi-autobiographical protagonist in their first books. Certainly Dr Morgan Sierra, in my ARKANE series, is my own kick-ass alter-ego!
But whatever we write, bringing our own personal experience to the page only enriches and deepens the experience for the reader.
In today's guest post, crime thriller author T.J. Cooke guides us through some questions that will help us bring more of ourselves to the page.
As writers mature, their content and style are increasingly influenced by their life experiences, which can become a crucial part of the writing process. Whether it’s a scene or location that you long to recreate, a nuance of someone’s personality that is just what your character needs, or the recall of a hurtful feeling that helps portray emotion… each could be valuable.
It’s not always easy to draw on your own experiences. Though some may be joyous and celebratory, others are likely to be delicate or painful, but if you aim to write with authenticity then sometimes you have to be brave.
Let’s have a look at the sort of experiences that can be helpful. In doing so I’ve revisited some of my own influences, to see how these have shaped my work.
(1) Childhood and Upbringing
What were the themes of your childhood that still resonate through your life today?
Many writers draw upon their childhood for inspiration. Roald Dahl’s work is littered with the good, the bad and the ugly of his younger days. He had a miserable time at school and once said that the main highlight of his day was his trip to the sweetshop on the way home. He used to stop and gaze into the window, mesmerized by the giant glass jars of sweets. The early seeds of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ were clearly being sown.
Of course Roald Dahl went on to draw on other experiences too, many of which were quite dark, but somehow those early childhood memories can remain the most vivid, and the most useful for writers.
When I revisit my novels ‘Defending Elton’ and ‘Kiss and Tell’ I can see how certain memories sparked the creative process. These range from individual moments to sweeping themes. One theme that runs strongly throughout my work is that of ‘truth’ and its portrayal. My adoption, or more precisely its emergence as a taboo subject in my family, had quite an effect. For a while this was negative but in later years it gave me a tremendous insight into issues of nature and nurture. It also drove me on to follow an early career in the law, driven I’m sure by a continued and possibly somewhat naïve quest to ‘unearth the truth’.
So don’t be afraid to look back into childhood for inspiration. Yes, it might not be quite the happy the time it was meant be, and yes you may well have to be brave, but the source material is invaluable.
(2) Previous jobs
Where have you worked? What type of work was it? Who did you work for, and with?
Those that have known nothing but writing are very few and far between. Most of us have done a variety of different jobs and it is in the work place where we often pickup on things that can later help us as writers, particularly with character and setting.
Try jotting down all the different jobs you’ve done, and includes those few weeks during the school summer holidays, or during your gap year. If you’re anything like me you’ll be surprised at how long the list is. Then try making a list of the most memorable characters from each job, and why you recall them so clearly. We often spend more time at work than we do with family or friends, and it is in the workplace where we are exposed to the biggest diversity of characters.
It can also help us with a solid grounding for setting and location. Writers need to be able to visualize the basic structure of the environment in which their characters operate. Using an old work setting as a template can be very useful. It needn’t be an exact replica. You could use the internal structure of an office block to double up as a base on some distant planet in your futuristic thriller. At least the recall of its structure will give you the confidence to plot the action.
(3) Visits and vacations
Where in the world have you been? What places have you visited, either professionally or recreationally?
Many writers use their memories of places as a basis for location. These don’t have to be far flung or exotic, but somewhere with interesting or unusual vistas can be quite evocative. Far more people travel now than they did a generation ago and chances are that wherever you set your scenes some of your readers will have been there. It’s always better to be able to picture places for yourself rather than rely on photos and research.
This can be particularly helpful when you have to describe the vibe and atmosphere of a place. In ‘Kiss and Tell’, Bella Kiss is a Hungarian national who was brought up in Budapest. She is betrayed by her brother Ferenc who is part of an international drug smuggling gang. It’s a fabulous city, one of Europe’s most fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to spend several months there on a work assignment. It helped tremendously in getting a ‘feel’ for the place. Though in the book little of the action takes place in the city it was helpful to draw upon the vivid memories to give some of the characters a little more depth.
(4) Learning from other writing disciplines
What other forms of writing have you done?
Not only have most writers done other jobs, but probably written more than just prose. This may have been undertaken professionally or socially, for reward or fun, but most other forms of writing can help when it comes to writing your novel.
You might write articles for local newspapers or magazines, copious letters or emails, blogs, poetry, song lyrics, advertising copy etc, whatever the discipline, writing is a constant learning curve. I found that my own two previous writing disciplines really helped when it came to penning my novels.
A few years back I wrote for television, mostly for serial dramas. I had initially worked for Eastenders and went on to write for The Bill, London’s Burning, Bad Girls and Family Affairs. The latter was a prolific show with episodes broadcast five days a week. Writing for shows like this really focuses the mind and teaches you how to be economical with dialogue.
The same could be said for my advertising copywriting. Constructing a little narrative that resonates with people is often the best way of getting a commercial point across. However, you have so little time to play with and nothing can be superfluous. It was further grounding for writing fiction and was particularly helpful when it came to editing. Many writers I expect find editing the toughest hurdle. Especially so when you have to bin something you really like, and might even feel quite attached to, for the sake of the overall structure of your book.
(5) Life’s journey
I guess all of the above is a tip for using your own life journey in your writing – and not being afraid to do so. That doesn’t mean that what you write is autobiographical, or even semi-autobiographical, and we all get asked that question don’t we? What it means is using your experiences to add depth to every aspect of your work, whether it be character, narrative, location, plot, etc.
I couldn’t have written ‘Kiss and Tell’ and ‘Defending Elton’ without drawing on all these life experiences. Some were professional, some were personal, but they were all valuable events.
I’m a strong believer in that old adage ‘write what you know’. It’s a sensible dictum, but ‘write who you know’ is just as useful. One thing I have always remembered from an early scriptwriting course is to give each and every character, no matter how seemingly insignificant to the plot, a reason for existing… a reason that comes from their own character. If you fail on this point you have in effect a cipher, a vacuous being who is simply performing a plot function.
I think it’s a good tip to always ask every character what they are doing, and why they are doing it? They should be able to answer for themselves. Your own life experience should help them answer, but if you find yourself answering for them something somewhere has gone wrong.
I would be fascinated to read other writers accounts of how their own life experiences have shaped their work… and what tips they have learned to help other writers along the way. Please do leave a comment below.
TJ Cooke [Tim] is the author of crime thrillers ‘Kiss and Tell’ and ‘Defending Elton’.
Find out more at www.tjcooke.com which includes his regular blog. You can also connect with Tim on twitter @timscribe
I’ve noticed in my first 4 stories, that while the first was very autobiographical in a sense – with a character who shared my childhood – that all my stories and heroes / heroines have a bit of me in them. But it makes them real to me, which will hopefully make them more real to my readers, when I get to that point. I often consider myself, despite my career, as a jack of all trades, and it really helps to understand my characters.
Tim Cooke says
Yes Heather I think the more you can relate to a character the easier they are to write…. and I guess the more of ‘you’ that’s in them the easier that process might be.
Garry Rodgers says
Great article. I thought I’d share my background which other crime writers might find interesting.
I was raised on a fur farm and trapline in the Canadian wilderness. Since I was old enough to walk, I’d helped to process animals. It was a way of life and I didn’t realize that others might find it repulsive. At 21 I joined Canada’s federal police force, the RCMP, and worked my way into the homicide division. No doubt my upbringing gave me the stomach to develop an expertise in processing murder scenes. That led me to an appointment as a forensic coroner; the ultimate death processor.
Hands-on knowledge of criminal investigations, autopsies, and ballistics is not something the vast number of crime writers have. I’ll bet even Agatha Christie never attended a real death scene, but that didn’t stop her from achieving the ultimate in murder mystery success. She just got her facts right.
I’d just like to pass on my piece of advice. It’s not so much ‘write what you know’, it’s more like ‘check what you write’.
Tim Cooke says
Well you’ve certainly had some interesting jobs there Garry. I too dealt with a fair few murder cases, as a defence lawyer, and there’s no substitute for that sort of experience. I guess with a mixture of ‘write what you know’ and ‘check what you write’ you won’t go far wrong.
My mother used to drive me nuts by trying to get me to give up my current fantastical stories and ‘write what I know’ a moral lesson taught to her by Jo March / Anne of Green Gables. I have since come to interpret ‘write what you know’ as both literal and less literal. ie. I write fantasy about magic and mythological creatures, but within my characters & stories in hindsight I can see my own experiences. ie: the climate of religious fundamentalism which I was brought up in. I wrote the heartbreak of a main character who discovers that the love of her life loves her back, but is unworthy of her none the less, (he won’t stand up to defend her out of fear). Only once I read the scene did I realise that I had literally transposed my own experience onto the character. I personally couldn’t do this the other way round though, it seems to happen quite naturally and would feel odd and a bit of a waste of time for me to delve into my past and try use that to inspire my writing! Though looking back and seeing where it has happened naturally is very interesting in a psychological way…
Tim Cooke says
Fascinating post there Kit. You are spot on. ‘Write what you know’ shouldn’t be taken too literally, and certainly not ‘morally’. The way it works best is just as your example denotes. Quite often we write what we think at the time is either fantasy or abstract but is in fact a woven tapestry of our own experience. Sometimes, as writers, we might find this awkward, and feel too self-exposed, but when it happens quite naturally it can be cathartic. It also makes for some of our best work I’m sure.
Trixie Hall says
These two lines are extremely valuable to me:
‘write who you know’
“give each and every character…a reason for existing”
Tim Cooke says
Thanks Trixie. An old screenwriter tutor made us question every single character in our screenplays, and it works for novels too. Basically she asked of our characters ‘did they appear of their own volition, or did you place them there?’ And if the latter applied we had to re-write them!
Jan Scarbrough says
I tackled this same question in a recent blog. I wrote: To make our stories realistic, we must create characters by using human emotions we all experience.
Tim Cooke says
I’ve read your blog Jan and like you say ‘Write what you know’ is all encompassing. It applies as much to writing emotion with authenticity as it does to anything else.
Dan Erickson says
I’ve written songs for over 30 years. Songs are almost always about personal experiences. So when I started writing fiction that was a natural. Not only do I use childhood, previous jobs, vacations, etc, in my writing, I use the little everyday things. For instance, someone makes a simple comment that resonates with me: bam it works its way into my book. I see a beautiful scene, sunrise, mountain view, ocean: bam it works its way into my book. I’ve found it amazing how yesterday’s events can weave their way into today’s writing.
Tim Cooke says
That’s the beauty of it Dan. Every experience, no matter how grand, or seemingly trivial, can be of use to us as writers.
Nadja Notariani says
I truly enjoyed this feature – and love the idea of drawing from pieces of personal experience in writing. 🙂 What a great way weave emotion into a character, setting, or situation!
It was so good to *see* you. Hope you are doing well…and enjoying your summer (well, summer here…lol) months. Your site looks fabulous. Once you get back, I’d love to link-back to this post – with your permission, of course!
Tim Cooke says
Glad you enjoyed this feature Nadja. I was very pleased to be able to post this via Joanna’s wonderful CreativePenn site. She provides a marvellous resource for writers, and her warmth of soul shines through.
I’d also be happy to link with you either via http://www.tjcooke.com or twitter @timscribe
Cathy Jones (Lucy Crowe) says
What a wonderful article! “Write What You Know” is a golden rule for a reason! I find that, even when I have not planted them there purposely, twigs of myself and my life keep sprouting up in my narrative. One of my characters has my Catholic upbringing, another my EMT/firefighting job, still another my love of all things magical. As a group, they spend their time discussing the last house fire, swimming, telling bad jokes over a bottle of rum. I’m pretty sure that my own familiarity with these topics very much helps to round out these folks and their activities, make them so much truer to life. I have found, over the years, that I can create any scenario I want, but that small germ of my own existence still needs to be tucked away somewhere in there.
Tim Cooke says
Yes Cathy, and I think the other thing you’ve made me think of there is empathy. When it comes to writing ’emotion’ there is only so much we may have experienced directly, but a whole gamut of emotions may have been felt vicariously. Understanding and empathising allows us to tap into those emotions too.
Laura Hebbeln says
I work at Rushmore Cave during the summer; a popular tourist destination right next to (you guessed it) Mt. Rushmore. I have met people from all over the world. As a writer, I don’t think I could have a better summer job! So many people and experiences to store into my memory! I enjoyed reading this- thank you for posting 🙂
This is quite a useful source guide for writing. I was happy to know that there is such a guide for me to start writing my own fiction based from my personal experience; first with an anecdote to a full blown short story writing. Thank you very much and continue to guide thousands of neophytes writers; like me, to come up with their own fiction. Kudos!