Where are you when you read? Where are you when you write? I don’t mean, Where are you physically – although a Greek island in the sun or a remote bothy in the Scottish Highlands sounds pretty appealing, depending on your temperament. I mean, Where are you imagining your story’s taking place? When you’ve been engrossed in that book, either reading it or creating it, and something interrupts you, where – for a tiny split-second – do you still think you are?
Who was it who cautioned, “Write what you know”? Not a bad maxim but how pedestrian our literature would be if every writer took that advice! Worried that you haven’t lived an interesting life? All of us have unique experiences on which we can draw – a holiday job in a DIY warehouse or a gap year bumming round the States. None of it’s going to be wasted, even if you have to adapt it to fit whatever you’re writing. You’ll have met people with intriguing life stories to tell, people you found irritating, people who were bonkers. Are you sure you can’t use them in a short story?
My first D.I. Jeff Lincoln novel, ‘The Price of Silence’ (currently being re-written) was all about the murder of a businesswoman in a public toilet on the edge of Barbury. Lincoln sets up a command post in a mobile classroom attached to the college near the scene of the crime. He can interview witnesses there and take statements.
It was only recently that I realized I hadn’t ‘created’ this place at all: when I was a student, I’d been paid to spend a day counting the number of people coming and going along a footpath behind the local technical college. And I’d spent that day in a mobile classroom attached to the college, across the road from the public toilets… Somehow, over the years, I’d forgotten about this ‘pedestrian traffic census’ – until my sister reminded me and the memory clicked into place. (I think the total number of pedestrians was 17.)
How about the day job? Working as a librarian was not all about stamping books. Indeed, very little of what I did was stamping books. Libraries are the focal point of a community, and you meet all sorts, you really do. I was asked to look over the book collection of an elderly scientist who’d died in Pinner, in case any titles might be of use to the library. Sadly, their age and condition meant having to refuse them – but before I got the chance, I was rapidly hustled out of the house. As well as collecting books, he’d also hoarded chemicals, some of which had become unstable!
Fragments of that adventure (!) found their way into ‘The Price of Silence’ though, again, I’m not sure I realized how much I owed to the gentleman in Pinner until the book was finished.
Do you have a hobby or an obsession you could use in your writing? Your fiction will seem more authoritative if you can drop in a few convincing details – but don’t overdo it.
And if you still feel you don’t know enough to set the scene effectively? Do some research. Wikipedia can be invaluable but try and immerse yourself in other people’s experience. Read biographies, old magazines and newspapers, oral history on the internet, local history publications that describe – often in the words of elderly residents – places and times that have changed beyond recognition.
Nothing you know is ever wasted – especially if you’re a writer.