I’d like to dig into (and explode) a writing myth. It’s one of those ‘golden rules’ held in awe by many: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. On one hand, the advice is solid: how can you tell any story if you don’t understand its setting? On the other, it’s often responsible for threadbare writing.
‘The Armchair Bride’ was my go at writing what I knew. In a past life – just like my heroine Lisa Doyle – I managed a Manchester theatre box office. Except I was in my 20s and a raging alcoholic with addiction issues and low self-esteem. 39-year-old Lisa is a far nicer person. Her only crime was that she invented a husband and was too proud to ‘fess up to the fantasy.
I spent my Manchester years stumbling from one bar and bed to another. If I’d written only of familiar things, my debut novel would have told a very different story. Not the romantic and heart-warming comedy I wanted. And if I’d written a feckless, unpleasant addict, there’s a fair bet it wouldn’t have sold its way into the bestselling lists (or earned a nomination as Arts Council ‘Book of the Year’). Not that I’m one to brag, but yay me.
Every crime writer doesn’t draw on personal experience as their characters slash open a body or flog their victim’s kidneys on the dark web. If they did, it would turn South of France writer’s retreats into far bloodier affairs.
A good story-teller takes a pinch of what he or she knows about the world and sprinkles in a pinch of what they don’t. Put another way: take what you know about yourself, rather than what you know about the world. Spin your story from the characters, rather than the other way around.
In ‘Rebuilding Alexandra Small’, I address my drinking years. These days, I drink very rarely, making me an incredibly cheap date. Allie is almost seven years sober and living what looks to the outside world like the perfect life. And then everything crumbles, shaking awake her inner demons.
Spin bigger stories
I drank because to disguise the shy, standoffish me, believing I could only make friends with a slur in my smile. Allie comes to realise the life she built isn’t one she wants.
Friends and family always try to see themselves in my stories. They couldn’t be more wrong. Every character is a little of me and a lot of my imagination.
Write what you know by all means, but spin bigger stories that go beyond the small world around your front door.