On not writing about what you know

There’s a cliché often told to aspiring novelists: write about what you know.

My advice: Don’t.

Writers’ actual lives, and certainly mine, are disappointingly humdrum and quite constrained. To write a novel of eighty to a hundred thousand words requires many hours of a bum on a seat and solitude, usually staring at nothing more interesting than the corner of the bedroom or a half space under the stairs where an office space has been carved out. But I have been blessed with an imagination, and a novelist’s job description is to make full use of it.

In my crime novels I’m drawn to the delicious and tantalizing otherness that is out there in the world. Crime fiction allows me as a writer to create characters, places and dilemmas that are far removed from everyday experience. It is what makes me return to my laptop day after day, week after week, year after year.

Ideas for characters, for example, bubble up in unexpected places: when I was planning my last novel and looking for inspiration I one day ended up in a queue at Pret a Manger. In front of me I saw a teenager with headphone buds in his ears and wide, slouchy shoulders, like he didn’t quite know where to put them. He carried a skateboard in his bony hand and had a tattoo or three and probably a piercing somewhere I couldn’t see. He didn’t seem to fit with the shiny busyness of the lunchtime work crowd that surrounded us. He was a misfit here and that’s what made him interesting to me.

And then later that week I saw this young guy again, not literally, but someone very like him, as I passed the music college at the end of my street. Hovering on the edge of  a huddle of intense, smoking students with guitar cases over their grubby green parkas he was scuffing his feet and staring mostly at the ground, but at one point he glanced in my direction: furtive, discomforted, but shyly disarming.

Something about this character – a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, awkward and unsure of himself, stayed with me, even though his distance from me in terms of sex, age, experience and lifestyle is vast. I didn’t know him, and that’s why I got excited about what I could get a character such as him to do.

These two men were the inspiration behind Darren Evans, the hero of my latest novel, The Silent Ones.

In the novel Darren is a recently graduated art student living squashed back into his parents’ house in South London. He’s directionless, disorganized, lazy, debt-ridden and smokes too much dope. But he’s also a romantic and a caring son, who’s worried about his mum, who is having treatment for cancer. He’s haunted by terrible dreams, of the tragedy that struck his family ten years ago when his sister Jodie disappeared, aged 13, presumed to be a victim of notorious female child killer Olivia Duvall.

Driven by a desire to alleviate his mum’s physical and mental suffering, Darren breaks the law to get a job as a cleaner at the psychiatric hospital where Olivia is imprisoned to try and find answers about what happened to Jodie.

Now, I’ve never met a middle-aged, female serial killer, and you can bet Darren never has. But I’m a writer, I’ve got an imagination, and sat in my half study under the stairs I can make sparks fly…


This post is brought to you by Ali Knight.



2 thoughts on “On not writing about what you know

  1. Such an interesting post! I always love to find out how or where authors get some of their inspiration for their characters from. #TalkoftheTown


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