You may have heard the advice often given that you should write about what you know. Whilst it’s very possible to do lots of research and find out about things that are totally new to you, I’m a huge believer in the power of writing from experience.
I recently had a lovely review of my first book, Bird. It was from a reader in the USA and she said: “I’ve never been to England but seeing London through Beth’s eyes was eye opening and I want to see Piccadilly Circus in real life! Thank you Lindsay Woodward for opening my mind and allowing me to see the beauty of London from a different perspective.”
I love London. When I first travelled there as a kid on a day trip I knew I wanted to live there someday, and in my early twenties I did just that. I am from a Staffordshire village and I moved to London, and that’s exactly what Beth does in my book. All of her thoughts, feelings and emotions are totally based on my own. I even used to spend my spare time travelling to different places on the tube, seeing London in the cheapest way I could as I had no money to spend. Much of what Beth goes through at the start of the novel is what I went through, and I believe because it was written with that depth of experience, of having lived through these things myself, that I was able to bring it to life and make the reader say the very kind things she did. A day trip to London and seeing what it’s like would never compare to the madness of living there. You just couldn’t know.
When planning my books, I don’t think of an experience I’ve had and build a story around it. I’ve never done that. None of my work is even remotely biographical. I’ll usually have a mad idea like a man turns into a bird or a girl is invisible and needs to find a way back to being visible again, and that’s where it begins. But as I create the scenes and plot around these ideas, I always weave in things that I know well to help bring it to life.
For example, when I think about the profiles of my characters – such as where do they work, how do they spend their time, what do they like and dislike – I always try to give them jobs or hobbies that I have done myself or I know very well. Many of my books feature marketing or sales people as I’ve worked in marketing for nearly twenty years. In In the Blood, the lead male, David, was a scientist, and I wrote his whole character and job based on my husband who is a scientist and I got him to help me shape the world that David lives in.
I also always try to get the characters to work in industries that I know or environments that I’m familiar with. Sometimes, as in Shape the Future, the story demands something different and a ton of research needs to be done, but wherever possible I try to stick to what I know. This isn’t because I don’t like research, but because research will never compare to being immersed in a situation. It’s one thing to understand something, it’s another to have lived through it, and I like bringing that into my novels.
In Invisible, Alice, the lead character, owns a security business. I once did marketing for security equipment, such as CCTV cameras and access control, so I thought it would be good to include that as I could talk about it with confidence. I still polished up on the terminology and latest innovation to make sure I was refreshed and up to date, but I had lots of first hand experience.
There will always be characters and situations that you need to add in that you have to research first. And when you don’t know, it’s imperative that you do that research. But I have no doubt that the positive feedback I get from my books often comes from the personal experiences I inject into my stories, and I am determined to keep doing that.
If you’ve not written before and you’d like to start a new project, I recommend definitely starting close to home. We all have so many stories to tell, so why not tell one of your own (even if you do massively fictionalise it). Share your way of looking at the world. I think it makes for a very deep and interesting story.