Mark Twain famously left us writers a nugget of advice – ‘write what you know’. He was eluding to the fact that if you write about places you’ve been and experiences you’ve had then your stories and characters will have a depth and believability about them difficult to achieve without visceral experience to draw on.
I accept that this does not apply to all facets of storytelling, after all, if I were to write about my real-life experiences you would read an extremely dull monologue about going to work and raising children, I would be a supporting character at best, the funny friend or shoulder to cry on. Even authors with more interesting lives than me may struggle to hold your attention. I’m willing to bet that Ian Fleming was not a spy with a licence to kill, Arthur Conan Doyle was not a high functioning sociopath and Jules Verne did not go to the centre of the Earth (as far as we know). But they each drew on formative experiences from their own pasts to add extra dimensions to the adventures they conceived.
History is littered with examples of characters and situations drawn from real life, Charles Dickens is a prime example of someone who not only pulled his experiences into his writing, but used his position as a prominent author to highlight social injustices and affect change.
Until the age of ten, Dickens’ early life was idyllic and relatively prosperous. He was born in Portsmouth where his father was a clerk in the Naval Pay Office before moving to Chatham, Kent. Charles, the second of eight children, was privately educated for a few years until the family’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. His father was recalled to London where mounting debts forced him into debtors’ prison, along with his wife and youngest children, as was the custom in Victorian England. When Charles was twelve, he was sent to lodge with an impoverished family friend. To help pay for his lodgings and support his family financially, Charles was sent to work twelve hour days at a Blacking Warehouse. He worked in squalid conditions, later writing about the sea of rats in the basement and the harsh routines he and his fellow youth labourers endured without any apparent regard given to their wellbeing.
Even at this tender age, prominent people and places in Charles Dickens’ life had already provided inspiration for many of his enduring characters: the shipyard owning Paul Dombey in Dombey & Son was based on his Godfather, Christopher Huffam; Mrs Pipchin in Dombey & Son was inspired by his impoverished landlady; the debtors’ prison was used as a setting in Little Dorrit, and a family with whom he boarded in Southwark became the Garlands in The Old Curiosity Shop. Even the character of Bob Fagin started his fictional life in Dickens’ reality, this being the name of a fellow child labourer at the Blacking warehouse, and the author “took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.”
People and places were not the only inspiration for Charles Dickens’ works. General indignation at his treatment as an impoverished child was a recurring theme in his works. He believed the poor unfairly shouldered the burden and brutality of rising industrialisation and suffered, not only physically, but emotionally and materially for the loss of opportunity and lack of education. He regularly lambasted the inadequate administrations of institutions and systems designed to help them – the orphanages, the courts, the prisons, and the workhouses, always drawing on his own turmoil and ordeals to inject realism to his works. Working conditions were dangerous and exploitative to both children and the poor in Victorian England and Charles Dickens did not write of them from a distance. He had lived amongst the deprived and ignored of society so felt uniquely qualified to bring their plight to life on the pages of his novels. His harrowing childhood was the basis of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, although their impact peppers most of his published works from The Pickwick Papers to his last serial, Our Mutual Friend.
When not fuelling narrative from his own past, Dickens’ ensured authenticity by immersing himself in sometimes harsh realities. If he had no experience of a situation he would seek it out. He visited the town of Preston whilst writing Hard Times to witness the effects of a workers’ strike on a manufacturing town, and was reported to often visit locations he wrote of before putting pen to paper. This degree of new personal experience, when added to the library of his own, allowed him to connect strongly with the characters and more importantly, the readers, allowing him to convey his messages of social injustice, sacrifice and misery.
In writing what he knew about, Dickens brought a depth of description, language and personal representation to his stories. His message to the Government and capitalists of the time was clear, they should do more to reform the plight of the poor in society, yet it was veiled and woven within popular, fictional stories relatable to the middle and lower classes of the time. Today, we read his works with less of a political slant. We appreciate his choice of words and symbolism to juxtapose the parallel existence of the poor and middle classes. You cannot deny that laying bare his first-hand experiences to reader has left us with a visceral, palpable imprint of what life for the underprivileged of the time.
As writers, you should be sure to file away every experience, every conversation, every hour of people watching (just me?) and pull it into your writing whenever possible. Your combined senses will write the scene for you. You will flood the pages with smells, ambiance, and sounds, so much so that your reader will dive headfirst into the intense, vibrant world you’re building. You may not know how to travel to the centre of the Earth, but you do know how the sea tastes when it seeps into your mouth, how the soft, warm sand feels between your toes, and how the hot muds of Turkey smell like the Devil himself.
Write what you know about.
How do you ensure you write what you know about? Let me know in the comments below. I’m really interested to know how you remember overheard conversations or other things that you think you’ll find a home for in your fiction.