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Write On! Features: How To ‘Write About What You Know’ by Jilly Henderson-Long

By Jilly Henderson-Long

Ask any writer and they will tell you that, at some point in their career, they’ve been advised the best way to make their writing sound realistic, is ‘write about what you know’. There’s no doubt this adds credence to any writing. We’re all aware of how it feels to be anxious, happy, cautious, angry or terrified out of our wits. But how do we apply that when we’re writing science fiction, fantasy, historical romance or about a world that exists only in our own imaginations?

Like most of us, I was never part of the tragedy that was the Titanic, or walked on the moon, or been in a cult, or ‘betrothed’ to someone I’ve never met or cannot stand. I’ve never been lost in caves, won the World Cup in football or played tennis on the hallowed turf that is Wimbledon Centre Court. So, if I wanted to write about any of these things, how can I possibly make it sound true to life?

Thankfully, love it or hate it, the technological highway is here to stay. It’s made it easy enough to look most things up on the World Wide Web. Want to know the symptoms of scabies? Look it up. Need to discover what it felt like to be an orphan in wartime London? Look it up. Want to know what a bite from a horsefly looks like? Take a peek. It’s all there. Or is it?

So, this begs the question, how did our forebears find out about such things? Did Agatha Christie ever murder someone with cyanide? Did H G Wells ever travel on a Time Machine? Of course not! Emily Bronte had never set foot outside of Howarth, yet she created one of history’s most enduring anti-heroes – Heathcliff. Even Enid Blyton, I’m certain, was never part of a gang of children constantly seeking out mysteries to solve and crimes to uncover. Yet the writings of all these people continue to enthral their readers and capture the imaginations of millions worldwide.

So, how did they do it? Possibly, they read a lot, if indeed they could read. They probably all had incredibly active imaginations. Maybe they heard stories or myths and legends that they then developed into their own writings. They may even have seen an announcement in a parish magazine or on a church notice board that ignited their spark of inspiration. But that still doesn’t explain how they made their work so believable.

This, I’m delighted to say, is the amazing and enduring challenge that makes us the writers we are. Here’s a brief example. When I was six or seven, a similarly aged friend and I got lost in a busy marketplace. We could hear the anxious calls of our mothers, but we couldn’t see them. Hand in hand, and in blind panic, we ran this way and that way, becoming more terrified by the second. Eventually, we couldn’t hear their calls any longer and, for us, the world came to an end. We were alone in a huge place we barely knew. We didn’t know if we’d ever see our families and homes again. At six years old, things look pretty much as things are. We were two little girls who were lost. Eventually, two elderly ladies found us crying as we wandered around, bereft, and kindly took us to the police station. The police officers took good care of us and, when our parents came to take us home, our joy knew no bounds. And thereby came the next strong emotion: relief. We felt safe and loved again and back in our own environments.

I’ve never ever forgotten that experience and it translates well whenever I need to identify any of those strong emotions: fear, terror, sorrow, relief and being loved. These are all feelings everybody has at some time or other in their lives and, I believe, we all harness those feelings. Being a writer just gives us the opportunity to draw from them and incorporate them into anything we write. It’s no less terrifying being lost at six than it is to find yourself facing some other unknown horror: a missing child, coming face to face with a burglar, even facing redundancy when you have bills to pay and a family to feed.

Of course, it works just as well when you’re writing about characters experiencing great joy: the birth of a child, a lucky win, meeting the person of your dreams! Or being furious about something; being blamed for something we didn’t do, for example, or finding out we’ve been cheated by someone or something. Basically, we just need to take all our emotions and use them to add realism to any situation we write our characters into. Being afraid of deep space, one assumes, is the same as being afraid in a marketplace.  It may be a different level of fear, but it’s still fear. And that is how to write about what you know – even if your characters find themselves in unfamiliar situations!

Here’s a little challenge for you. Take a pen and notebook and jot down a situation in which you felt extreme emotion, i.e. getting lost at six years old in an unfamiliar place. Now, just close your eyes for a moment and think back. Really explore your feelings. And now write down the first thing that occurs to you about that situation; in this case, being afraid. Why are you afraid, though? The place is unfamiliar and you don’t know how to get home, or even if you ever will get home. It’s a big old world out there. There are people about you don’t know, who may pose a threat. If you go one way, will that take you closer to home, or further away? Look around you. Everyone is taller, louder. They may not even see you to begin with because the place is crowded, and you are so little. A dog barks nearby. Maybe it’s just pleased to see someone it knows but could it be coming after you? Would that fear change if the dog was a dragon or a zombie? A car swishes by. One step further into the road and you’d have been hit! You are, after all only six years old! Now, at last, you see your mum, dad, granny. How does that make you feel? Relieved? Happy. Safe.

So you see, it really is that simple. Just put yourself in a situation and think of all the feelings and emotions that go with it, whatever it may be. I think you’ll find the more you do it, the better you’ll get and the greater the depth of writing will become. Good luck!

Jilly wrote her first book at age seven. Her first published piece came when she was 12. As well as running Creative Writing groups, her work has appeared across wide range of media. She has published three children’s books and several poetry collections. Her hobbies include photography and reading. She lives in Westcliff on Sea with husband Steve. They have 
eight grandchildren.
Connect with Jilly on X (formerly Twitter): @Jilly52144833


Issue 18 of Write On! is out now and you can read it online here. Find it in libraries and other outlets. You can find previous editions of our magazines here.

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We’re all aware of how it feels to be anxious, happy, cautious, angry or terrified out of our wits! But how do we apply that when we are writing science fiction, fantasy, historical romance or about a world that exists only in our own imaginations?