Tag Archives: inspiration

“Write what you know” and what it means to me right now

“Write what you know” is a popular piece of advice given to writers, and over the course of the many years I have been writing, I’ve interpreted it in a few different ways.

As a novice, I thought it meant sticking to what you’re already knowledgable about.

After that, I thought it meant putting in the work to do the research and become knowledgable about the topics you want to write about.

In forum posts I made in the last couple of years I’ve argued that it’s about putting personal feelings and experiences into what you write – drawing upon your emotional responses to events to inform the way you write characters.

These days I think it’s a combination of all three. Which is predominant depends on the needs of the scene in question.

Recently I’ve been working on “Fiarra Beginnings”, the latest version of my volcanic island survival fantasy story. It has undergone a lot of changes and seen a fair few restarts over the years, but this time I’ve been taking a different approach by taking it chapter by chapter: I start with notes about what I want from the chapter, look into the characters involved in the chapter and what their motivations are, find out what I need to know about to write convincingly on the topics covered in the chapter, develop a chapter outline, and then write the chapter. Then I move on to the next.

This approach has highlighted to me these different definitions of “write what you know”.

I had decided fairly early in the process that Fiarra’s background needed to be in a profession that becomes useless after the eruption of the volcano and evacuation of everyone who can get on board the ships in the harbour at the time. The setting in terms of technology is roughly equivalent to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, so I made her a glass-maker. In the aftermath of the eruption, there’s no call for glass when people are simply struggling to survive, and in any case it would be thought to be a pointless extravagance when there’s always the risk of another eruption that would rain down more rocks to smash windows, or shake the earth to knock bottles off shelves. So to get that right, I needed to do a lot of research into early glass-making, including raw materials and processes. I have to know what I’m writing about after all.

For the secondary protagonist, Macky, I had a similar requirement: his background needed to be in the service of the Governor, but not in direct contact. I needed him to feel betrayed by the Governor specifically as part of his motivation. Initially I felt a gardener position would be fine, but I wanted a bit more prestige and a bit more of a sense of dedication and hard work, so I made him a beekeeper. I have been researching the history of beekeeping this summer, in particular in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and my Dad keeps bees, so I have plenty of knowledge on this already, from the kinds of hives that might have been used, to the ways to prevent and treat stings. In this I am writing on a topic that I know about in depth already.

And as for drawing upon personal experience, that’s always an easy one once you have enough of it. I have drawn upon my personal experiences in work, after experiencing loss, after major life changes, in personal relationships with the people around me, and more.

Still, there’s always more to learn, more to know – and more to write about.

Progress report: One Million Words, week 25

This will be the last weekly update, finishing off 2015. Future progress reports for the One Million Words challenge will be monthly. I am aware that they are not popular posts and would prefer to spend my time on Monday mornings more productively – whether that’s writing fiction or planning more interesting blog posts.

So on to this week’s progress. This week I wrote 5,449 words, bringing my total now to 114,031 words/1,000,000, or 11.4%.

Day by day summary

Monday: 1,150 words (Coronation cloak)

Tuesday: 862 words (Coronation cloak)

Wednesday: 731 words (Coronation cloak)

Thursday: 589 words (Coronation cloak)

Friday: 388 words (Coronation cloak)

Saturday: 1,166 words (Coronation cloak)

Sunday: 563 words (Broken bridge of Anqas)

Continue reading Progress report: One Million Words, week 25

RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

When I was 12 or 13, my sister bought me a book for my birthday. It was a tattered ex-library copy with some funny, detailed, cartoonish drawings on the front, drawings of an old fashioned treasure chest with lots of tiny little feet coming out the bottom, and troll-like figures standing in a doorway. I thought she’d cheaped out on my birthday present, that’d she’d just thought “Ally likes books, I’ll see what I can find at the library booksale for 20p”. But she talked with such animated enthusiasm about it that I decided to ignore the state of it and give it a go.

the colour of magic

Continue reading RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

A Year for More Reading: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

It is quite a glaring omission that I, though a fantasy fan, have not read  The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe until now. I watched the film adaptations – the 1979 animated one as a child of maybe 6 or 7, at the house of an elderly neighbour who babysat us sometimes, and the live action one when it hit cinemas in 2005. So I was familiar with the overall story.

I wasn’t familiar with the writing though, nor how accurate the 2005 movie – or my slightly hazy memories of it – were. On this occasion, I opted for the audiobook, which is available for free on Youtube. I haven’t listened to audiobook since my parents stopped using the Just William series to keep myself and my siblings quiet in the back of the car on our way to our annual holidays. Given that The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a children’s book, though, this seems appropriate (I shall have to make a point of listening to an audiobook for adults at some point).

One thing I particularly noted about the narrative style is how it wasn’t afraid of breaking the fourth wall. At one point, it refers to a previous action taken by a character as having happened “at the end of the last chapter”. This, coupled with the introduction addressing a particular girl for whom the story was written, and, perhaps, the fact that I listened to rather than read this story, made it feel quite intimate. It wasn’t immersion-breaking as I would have expected, but gave me a sense of sitting on my grandfather’s knee as he read the story to me. It’s comforting.

The simplicity of the language and of the plot is entirely what I’d expect from a children’s story. I knew in advance about the allusions to Christianity in the story and could recognise those easily when they cropped up.

There is often a question, in fantasy, whether stories should be used to preach, and in the course of my life my own beliefs have let me to side with one side of the argument or the other, but having actually listened to it I don’t feel that religion was preached to me through this story, but rather used as inspiration. And there’s nothing wrong with drawing themes and arcs from existing well known stories and myths, whether you believe in them or not. After all, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, altered to fit a different setting, just as this is a retelling of the end of Jesus’ life in the Bible, but set in a fantasy world. My lack of belief in the source material was not offended by it.

I think that’s the key thing I can take from this as a writer: that even using easily recognisable source material as a major inspiration for a story does not stop that story being unique, interesting and well-told. I have previously considered a writing a fantasy retelling of an event from the Peloponnesian War, the conflict between Corcyra and Corinth that started it all off; I think I need not be worried that this is unoriginal, if I can make it interesting.

Yes, it is a good idea

New writers often post in forums to ask if this idea they have is a good one. They post a summary of it and request that strangers offer harsh critique of the idea and opinions of whether they should continue writing the story. Regardless of whether I like the idea or not, the answer is always “yes.” Why? Because if that’s what the writer wants to write, who am I to tell them no?

The problem is that these new writers misunderstand what makes a story successful. The idea is not sacred. An experienced writer has dozens of them a day. Ideas aren’t stories. Ideas are just one of the building blocks of stories. It is a writer’s job to transform those ideas, to develop them into characters and plots and to deliver them to the reader in a compelling narrative. That is what makes a story: the hard work that comes after the idea.

Continue reading Yes, it is a good idea

Inspiration, Archaeology and the One Ring

It has recently been reported that a Roman ring, suggested by some to have inspired Tolkien when he was writing The Hobbit, has been put on display at The Vyne, a Tudor house in Hampshire, in association with the Tolkien Society.

I have some reservations about this story, both from the perspective of a writer and as the holder of a degree in Ancient History and Archaeology.

The media reporting this story, as well as the people at the Vyne and in the Tolkien Society, display a lack of understanding of how inspiration works for a writer. In fairness, I can’t speak for other writers, but I find inspiration is never about one thing. Inspiration comes from a thousand sources, and the way I link my experiences to one another.

The Roman Ring on display at the VynePhoto source: National Trust
The Roman Ring on display at the Vyne
Photo source: National Trust

Continue reading Inspiration, Archaeology and the One Ring