How Charles Dickens Taught Us To Write What We Know

 

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.

charles dickens, dickens, oliver twist, great expectations, david copper fieldUntil 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.

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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.

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About Nicola Auckland

Busy wife to one & mum to two. I've caught the creative writing bug, now need to practice, get awesome and write something worth reading. Simples.
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26 Responses to How Charles Dickens Taught Us To Write What We Know

  1. The other day, I remember, I accidentally locked my mother in her room and went to the market. When I came back, I had a hard time- after all, one can’t be expected to remain at peace after being held captive in her own room. Although the memory of the event had almost faded away, but your article made me recollect every pinch of it. Of course, there is nothing exciting about my role in this scene, for it was my mother who had to bang the door asking to open it continuously and unsuccessfully. Anyway, this is what struck me first after reading your post. Thank you for making me relive the experience and laugh it over frivolously.

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  3. Hmm interesting article, thanks for the share !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant!! What good ideas

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  5. What a wonderful and well-written piece!

    I think that your own peronal experiences will always find a way to infiltrate your fictional work. I find that by writing a compulsory page in my journal each morning before work and each evening after work helps me make sense of the events, people, inner thoughts and feelings I experience throughout the day.

    These snippets of reality form a spark of inspiration for many different fictional pieces. In the end I am writing about what I know without necessarily realising it at the time, because even the most far-fetched story was in some way inspired by real life.

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    • Thank you for reading and enjoying the piece. I’ve always regretted not keeping a diary, I’ve tried but I’m just not committed enough. I’d have so much material to look back on if I did. You think you’ll remember everything but you don’t. I realise this as Facebook throws up eight year old memories of my children that I have long forgotten. I think every piece we write pulls a little bit of our own reality into it somewhere, no matter how small.

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  6. I must say that I do subscribe to the idea of writing what you know. It would be hard to write about a culture, for example, that you have never experienced or lived in. I base a lot of my poetry and writing on real events that I have experienced or seen and then I embellish them either from imagination or by working in other information that I have heard about. I also often have to do a bit of research to make sure that the scenes are correct as I cannot always recall all the detail from memory.

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  8. Thank you Nicola and I agree that ‘What we know’ is a composite of all that has passed through our lives including experiences, learning, books, research and even visually from films and documentaries as well of course, our own imaginations. Some of the great Sci-fi and fantasy novels were created without experiencing in in person. Mind you I did read a book once by a 21 year old ‘Life Coach’ who had strategies for middle-aged people to get over their mid-life crisis.. that did have me wondering a little! Will give my usual suspects something to think about.. have put in the Blogger Daily this evening.

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    • A 21yr old life coach – surely a contradiction! I like to think that in writing I will stick to what I know, whether that be actual experiences or those that my imagination throws up from repeated exposure. I’d never write about nursing as I know nothing about it and could easily be recognised as an imposter, nor would I attempt to include in depth discussions on genetic engineering! I am in awe of those who can.

      I’d love to hear your readers perspectives, thank you for including me in the Blogger Daily today.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. By the way, very good post. ^_^; I forgot to mention that before. Sorry my previous reply was so long. I got long-winded, but it was shorter than my original reply! ^_^; lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love to interact on the subjects I write about so feel free to make your responses as long as necessary. I only blog about things that I’m truly passionate about so love to discuss them.

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  10. “Write what you know.” Of course it means what you’ve said but I like to think it also includes things you know about from books/documentaries/etc rather than things you’ve experienced.

    Bram Stoker is one author who wrote about what he didn’t really know and we all know how successful Dracula still is. He never left his country and only looked up information about Wallachia geography, history, customs, etc. Jules Verne as well, as you said, with Journey to the Center of the Earth. I imagine he must’ve known a great deal about geography, minerals, volcanic features, etc because he wrote about it all so well. When I read it, I really could’ve believed the two men knew what they were spouting on and on about geologically.

    I think writing what you know about also includes things you’ve researched and know in your head. If you research something well enough, I believe you can still write convincingly about it, especially if you also add in things you’ve experienced in your real life. A weaving of fact and fiction to make the fiction believable.

    I’ve never seen a werewolf but I’ve seen wolves and smelled wet dogs and I’m sure a werewolf would have similar features and smell the same if it got wet. I don’t know what a rotting corpse looks/smells like, but I know what decay smells like on a much…much smaller scale and I know flies lay their eggs in dead things and maggots hatch from the eggs and eat said dead things. Come to think of it, I saw it once too. When I was a kid, there was a dead rat in the gutter with little white grub-like things creeping all over it. When asked what they were, my dad said they were maggots eating the rat. Ew. I had completely forgotten about that till now. So with that knowledge along with some imagination, I could most likely write up a believable corpse.

    But, yes, it all comes down to writing what you know about. There are tons of things I know absolutely nothing about and I stay away from them like the plague. I wouldn’t know where to begin if I tried.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Firstly, thank you for taking the time to consider such an in depth response 🙂 and secondly, I absolutely agree with you. I like to think it’s this constant layering of experience, knowledge and research that adds such believability to writing. We build a personal, four dimensional construct of the being, place or event in our mind that it is possible to relay this to readers directly from our imagination – as if we had been there ourselves. It’s the little touches that make it believable and this is why it’s so important to add them in.

      I both glad and disturbed that you can now bring believability to a corpse! It’s the description of the grubs’ movements, the smell and the sound that bring it to life – have you ever heard thousands of maggots tumbling over each other in an overheated bin? It’s uniquely grotesque!

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  11. Davy D says:

    An interesting and thought provoking post Nicola. This is a subject that has always posed the question for me, is it possible to write about something that we do not know or have not experienced? If we accept that any form of writing is an expression of information held in the brain then, even if we are creating another world, that world can only be expressed from our own brains perspective. I would value your thoughts on this.

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    • I am a very strong believer that the nuance of a piece of writing should come from experience. It adds a depth that not only creates believability but also allows a reader to connect on what is likely to be a shared experience. I speak here of the layers of sights, smells and sounds, of the familiar yet personal description of an eternally sprawling landscape or the wonder of someone else’s view of the solar system.

      The rest of anyone’s story, unless it’s non-fiction, is likely to be the product of their own brain. I totally agree with you that this will be the expression of the contents of their own imagination. If you are anything like me, the characters and stories are living in glorious technicolour in my head so I am able to recount this on a page as easily as if I have experienced it. I just need the detail provided by my own hands-on experience to give it life to others. Hence, write what you know.

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      • Davy D says:

        Thank you Nicola for the informative response. I write poetry, and it is all from personal experience, as you only have a limited number of words to convey the emotion or expression. If it is not genuine then the readers find it out very quickly. It was good to hear your perspective as writer. We seem to share similar heads.

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      • It’s interesting to me to hear your views as a poet too. I envy your ability to bring emotion or effect to the page, those few carefully chosen words always punch their way to where they are needed, I assume if they are laced with sincerity they will have much more impact and resonance. Writing what you know must help with conveying that genuine ideal.

        Thank you for bringing this perspective to the post.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Davy D says:

        A pleasure Nicola.

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  12. Your account of Charles Dickens brings him to life so clearly. Didn’t appreciate how much of a campaigner he was.
    For overheard conversations, I pay a lot of attention to what I’m hearing, zoom in on the part that intrigues me, write it down in my ever-present little notebook. Once I drew a cartoon based on what I heard, about lemon meringue pie, the chemist ! Its on my blog

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    • I’ll be sure to head over and read that post, sounds intriguing. I too have a notebook with me at all times, and I make extensive use of the notes feature on my phone. I’ve been known to make myself little voice memos as I walk away from interesting conversations. People watching is one of my favourite things to do.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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