azchallenge experienceI always admired Harry Harrison – for his pulp SF, which I loved as a teenager – and his author bio. His bio revealed that before he became a writer,  he had a ton of non-writing jobs. ‘Truck driver’ was one. I knew what this meant. Harrison had experience. He didn’t go to writing school and learn about theoretical writing. He didn’t work in one of those publishing or editing or proofreading industries. He had a proper job.

I loved that. Still do. Apart from anything else, this means that Harrison would never have to google “life of a truck driver” for novel research.

Side rant: Stories about writers exhaust me. Oh, a failing screenwriter, really? A novelist looking for love… yawn. From the number of movies and novels featuring writers, you’d think that ninety percent of all workers were wordsmiths. Well, they’re not. Despite what the internet would have you believe, most people do not work as investigative journalists or romance novelists.

This, for me, is the equivalent of another pet hate of mine, the career politician. If you leave school and study politics at uni and then become a politician, what do you actually know about anything you’re legislating on? Grr.

Rant over. For writing, you need to write what you know, and that does not mean only writing about being a writer.

So as a writer, how do you get life experience? Here are some suggestions.

Work a lot of different jobs. In today’s uncertain labour market, this is almost the default. Most of us have no choice but to do a series of crummy jobs while we pay off student debt and/or try to find work which doesn’t suck the soul from us with every breath.

Talk to people (1). I have a terrible habit of chatting to people I meet on my many, many hotel stays for work. In this way, I have found out the main reason giant recycling machines fail, how people cope with not seeing their new baby and sort of ex-girlfriend because they’re on permanent nights, and what’s involved in being a ghost hunter. All useful material.

Talk to people (2). Find out what people in your acquaintance do, and build up a list, so that if you ever need to, you can pick their brains about the technicalities of their jobs. For example, in my acquaintance is a former ocean liner captain, an immigration official, an anaesthetist, a part-time checkout assistant and smallholder, and a scientist. I also know a lot of people with farm animal expertise. What people do all day is fascinating.

Read biographies. Specifically, read biographies of people who are not like you. My favourite one as a teenager was for Baron von Richthofen, but I also enjoyed that of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and many others.

Write an emotion CV. You may never have battled a dragon, but you have almost certainly experienced extreme emotions. If you survived your teenage years, you are basically qualified for the full gamut. Create a CV with all the emotions you expect your characters to experience in the story, and check off the details against your own life. Loss, heartbreak, joy, excitement, disappointment – note down the events which caused these in you. Are there any missing? I’m not for one moment suggesting you go out and get your heart broken if you’ve thus far dodged this, but maybe read/watch some stories about that to build up your knowledge. Vicarious experience still increases our understanding. I read somewhere that the brain cannot tell the difference between a remembered or imagined emotion and the real thing – which is why reliving past hurts can be so damaging. Anyway, if that’s true, then by fantasising about the emotions you wish to portray, you are – by brain standards – really living them. Well done. You are now ready for the dragon.

What life experience have you used in your writing? What else could you seek out to enrich your creative authority? Let me know!

I’ll be back tomorrow with F – Forging new ideas