Using what you know

When I first started writing my novel I wondered whether or not I should base some of my characters on real people. I thought there might be real justification for doing this because drawing from an actual person should logically yield realistic character traits.

Nevertheless, I soon decided implanting alternate versions of people I knew into my manuscript felt like an unnatural fit to my particular story (this may have something to do with the Victorian setting) and besides, whilst drifting off into my own thoughts during my daily routine, I soon dreamed up a cast list which complimented my setting and plot nicely.

What I did decide to transpose into my work further along the line however, was fictionalised versions of real world locations.

I suppose it could be argued nearly every setting in a book is a fictionalised version of a place the author knows, but what I’m specifically talking about here is thinking of a place matching the environment of a particular sequence, and then spending time on your own in said place with the sole intention of improving your descriptions. Once you’re sat comfortably you can listen to the location’s sounds, make notes on any wildlife, work out how the weather interplays with the scenery and jot down anything else you think might help transport the reader there.

For example, at one point in my story some of my characters have a conversation in a springtime coppice and, after visiting a similar place myself, I found the scene much easier to bring to life. If I compare my initial draft to what I came out with after spending time in the real deal, the difference in quality is significant.

Of course, I’m aware this might not be possible for all stories; a sci-fi book set in a futuristic space station or on an alien planet etc, but hopefully an interesting nugget nonetheless.

As always, related comments and tips welcomed!

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8 responses to Using what you know

  1. Anonymous said:

    Hi Jack!
    Congratulations on your writing! It’s a daunting, fascinating process – and you make some great points about location here – the idea of *listening* to your setting and characters, not just writing them into the form you want.
    I’ve always been interested in this ‘write what you know’ question. I guess, if you think about it, we must *always* write what we know, in any age, and in any genre. The minute we place any character in any plot, we must use our personal life experience of what a given character would do or say, act or think, love or hate. This comes inevitably from our world view. So I think this idea of embodying a real person or experience in a novel is simply a matter of degree. Some are more literal than others – but all are an amalgam of who we are and what we’ve seen.


    • jackcroxall said:

      Thank you Steve! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your matter of degree comment – your life experiences are always going to shine through. Although I’m fairly new to this serious writing malarkey, I’ve also noticed almost every character I invent seems to include at least one of my own personality traits, I wonder if that’s the norm too …

  2. danpentagram said:

    I think this is a really interesting point, though you do have to be extremely careful when basing your charcaters on real life people, as 1. they may not appreciate it and 2. you could be faced with some real backlash if they come across as something msinterpreted.

    Using personality traits on the other hand is probably more commonplace than you realise. I for instance, have used a personal habit of a close friend in my story. He sticks his tongue out when he is concentrating and i thought that would be a perfect fit for my main character.

    • jackcroxall said:

      Definitely sound advice on the character front, Dan. I expect using real world personality traits may happen subconsciously as well.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Interesting point. If you do subscribe to the ‘write what you know’ philosophy for the setting of your writing then do you require extensive research for your choice of the Victorian era?

    • jackcroxall said:

      Thanks! Yes, I’ve done a lot of research (and thoroughly enjoyed it) on the Victorian era; what towns, villages and waterways would have been like, what people wore and how they treated each other etc. Of course, some environments don’t change at all with time. For example a wild Victorian woodland probably looked very similar to one from the present. I think it’s probably a good idea to include some of these more familiar settings for the reader as well as the more novel locations. 🙂

  4. Badger said:

    I use a character I know in real life quite often in my stories, however I tend to create a new one for the main character of the plot, as I find this alows for a lot more customization of the story progression. With enought time an imagination comes the inspiration for an entirely new character. What I sometimes do is intergrate a few traits of my own into the main character, but never anything defining.

  5. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 8-30-2012 | The Author Chronicles

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