‘Write about what you know’ – it’s the advice author after author and book after book tells you when you’re starting out. Well, what if all you know is pretty humdrum and ordinary? I’ve never travelled much, I’ve never had a family tragedy or a relationship crisis and I work in essentially an office job. Once I did a tandem skydive, but I’d struggle to make a novel out of that experience. It involved me screaming a lot.
Then I stumbled across this quote, attributed to Toni Morrison – ‘People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.’
That’s how writing opened up for me. I studied English Literature at University. I’ve always read, but through my twenties life got in the way of any writing. Finding a career and earning a living were the priorities and writing is a difficult way to do that. Only in the last few years has that spark and desire returned. Perhaps it comes with life experience, perhaps with the realisation that creating your own imaginary worlds and characters is more interesting than real life can ever be.
The joy of writing is you can be whoever you want, escape to wherever or whenever you want. I like to write stories based in the real world, but with situations I have never been in, characters I have never met and places that I have never visited – and you can make these characters do whatever you want them to.
When I had an idea for a novel I decided to set in a futuristic world, but I’m no sci-fi writer, so how do you write about that? I grounded it in the city I have lived my whole life in – Glasgow – so the geography and buildings were all laid out for me. From there I added a few things I realistically thought could happen in the near future – driverless cars, security drones – and I had a world in which to place my characters, who I kept grounded in realism. The result was a detective thriller with a twist – ‘A Justified State.’ And I fell in love with the characters so much that a sequel is already brewing in my mind.
I don’t worry about plot too much. Write the characters, put them in an initial situation, a rough sketch about something that may have happened, and then as you get to know the characters the plot tends to flow from there. Why would they do that? What would they say here?
And that’s how I write my short stories on my blog too. Make the characters real and the world they live in believable and you can write anything you want. I like to challenge myself with each story I write – write about characters who I’m not – female, disabled, different ethnic backgrounds or social background. Can I put myself in their shoes and make it believable? Can I write them without being patronising?
I live in a normal house with my wife and two kids, I commute to work each day and most of the time nothing extraordinary happens. I’m not complaining, I’m perfectly happy, and I’m aware how lucky I am – there are plenty who are much worse off. And everyday I get to sit down and write and a whole new world comes to life