Write what you know

When you first start out learning the process of writing, a lot of people will encourage you to ‘write what you know’. Feeling I had loftier ambitions than writing about being a 40-something housewife from London, I decided that for my first novel, I’d saunter directly into the unknown world of a fantasy sci fi, and write from the point of view of a fifteen year old girl from another dimension. I lasted about 20,000 words before I realised it was like the writing equivalent of trying to play Minecraft for the first time: an infinite world where anything was possible but I had no idea how to even open my inventory, never mind create anything of any meaning. I wasn’t ready to write the unknown. I needed to start from a more comfortable spot and see where that took me. So I thought about what I knew, and imagined a story filled with characters and places I was far more familiar with, and The PTA Assassin was born.

Granted, I had to Google a fair few things: what the difference is between MI5 and MI6, the inner workings of a Zippo lighter, how to tap an iPhone, what a luxury yacht looks like, how to do an arms deal and whether Dalek costumes are readily available on the internet. I could go on, and I’m pretty sure there’s a drone poised permanently over our house watching to our every move thanks to the less salubrious searches I performed. But despite all the crazy things I had my characters do, for the most part, I wrote about their feelings in ways I could identify with. I wrote what I knew.

My characters started off as strangers, with a traits and feelings I borrowed from my own library of experiences. I created people who I liked, and some who I didn’t. Actually, I liked all of them in the end, even the bad guys. An improv teacher of mine once said that the longer you hang around people, the more attractive they seem. You become familiar with them – the way they look, the way they dress, the way they laugh – and your brain starts to think about them in a different way. I thought this was his own discovery but it turns out it’s a well known psychological phenomenon called ‘mere exposure effect’. Well, that happened with me and my characters. They went from names on a page to real people: a glorious mash up of human kind, each with their own unique footprint, and I loved every moment of their creation.

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The world my characters inhabit grew from knowing them, too. I could tell you which of the works of art adorning the walls of the Koslovsky house were curated, and which were chosen personally. I could tell you where Vicky keeps the mugs and that the curtains in her bedroom are never quite pulled back. I could even file the paperwork for Matisse in the cream linen magazine files that line the top shelf of her personal office. It was amazing, once I knew my characters, how easily I could build their world.

I’ve had people ask me if they are in the book, and although I could never write a person I knew – because really, how can you presume to know anyone well enough in real life to give them a voice on a page? – I think everyone I’ve ever met contributed in some way to the characters I created. But I’ve learned that ‘write what you know’ isn’t meant to be literal, it means to write what you feel: The love you have for your partner that spans decades of time; the low self esteem that creeps up with the loss of youth; the sadness you felt when a friendship came to an end. It doesn’t have to be attached to the person who made you feel those things to make the feelings real.

The PTA Assassin is on the path to publication now, one way or another. The manuscript is finished and I’ve handed it to editors and agents to dissect and decide whether they believe in the people I’ve created. It’s hard to say goodbye to some of the characters, knowing when I come to write the sequel, that they won’t be there. But I’m looking forward to inventing new characters who will grow and mature into old friends, and now, I trust that I can. Writing what I know is really about believing that me and my experiences are enough. My inventory is plenty full and I can go ahead and build new worlds over and over, wherever and whatever they may be.

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