I always had issues with the write what you know adage. To a certain extent it’s often misunderstood. It’s not saying we should all write books that match our life experiences exactly, because can you imagine how boring books would be if people did that? But I think it’s encouraging writers to draw on what’s real in order to construct what isn’t.
Like, I might not have experience of losing somebody very close to me, but losing my grandparents means I can understand grief to a certain extent. I’ve never broken a bone, but I’ve dislocated some stuff, so I can draw on that when describing pain. And so on.
Mainly my problem with this is that I don’t have many life experiences. I’ve done a lot of things. Well, activities anyway. I’ve done various kinds of dance, played a bunch of instruments, been in all sorts of extra-curricular groups. But I haven’t been on any adventures, I’ve lived in the same house since I was less than one year old, and I couldn’t write a book set in another city if I tried.
Or could I?
(Okay, bear with me: I know you’re aware that I now live part-time in Cambridge, and it’s true, if I wanted to I could probably write a book set there. But that’s a fairly recent thing. Until last year, I’d never spent a substantial amount of time anywhere except my hometown.)
When I was first writing The Knight Shift all I knew is that it took place somewhere in the North, so I invented a fictional city and a university to go with it, both of them underdeveloped and haphazard. I quickly realised that wasn’t going to work, and that the setting needed to be real. Fantasy makes it easy to invent places, but it’s hard to set a contemporary novel in a place that doesn’t exist.
I knew my protagonist was a long way away from home, so I got a map and looked for the furthest North university that offered the subjects I’d decided my characters studied, and settled on the University of Aberdeen. Fine, I thought. That’s where it would take place.
The first step was to research the university — a remarkably easy type of research, because of course, universities want people to know about them and what it’s like to study there. They’re trying to draw in potential students all the time. Also, my mum’s a careers advisor, which meant it wasn’t hard for her to get hold of a prospectus for me to read.
It was at this point I discovered Aberdeen did a Celtic Studies course that interested me, and I almost ended up applying there. Which was, of course, a perfect reason to go and visit the city.
So, in the Easter break of 2013, my parents and I set off to Scotland on a bit of a road trip of Scottish universities. In St Andrews it poured with rain, and I decided the place was way too posh for me. In Glasgow the weather was beautiful and I spent the whole introductory talk distracted by the pretty girl sitting in the row in front of me. And then there was Aberdeen.
Okay, so Aberdeen snowed on me. I have to admit that its weather wasn’t particularly friendly. It was April, and we were snowed on (but it was a cold April everywhere). And my first impression of the city was that it was exceedingly grey. But I spent the whole time while I was there thinking about what I might need to know to write about it.
What cafes would my characters frequent? What were the main routes they’d walk? How would they get to certain places, such as the beach? How far away were parts of the university from other places they might go? What were the main venues where, say, a duel might place?
I probably shouldn’t need to add that I didn’t ask our tour guide that last question. I didn’t think he’d know the answer.
My parents were aware that I had an ulterior motive for visiting the city, but I don’t know if they quite grasped how serious I was until we were sitting in Kilau Cafe (an awesome place that features several times in The Knight Shift) and I was writing in my notebook a description of the pattern on the tables, and the layout of the room, and the shape of the sink in the bathroom.
I knew that two and a half days in the city would never let me convince readers that I knew the place. I don’t. And two years later, a lot of what I did know is fading. But details are so much harder to fake than the big picture. I can look at maps and Google streetview to describe routes, but nothing quite matches up to knowing that at Kilau Cafe they give you a little bowl of sugar lumps with tongs to put them in your tea.
Why am I telling you all this now? Because tomorrow I’m going to Aberdeen again, this time with Charley. I’ve been on camps and music tours, but this is the first time I’ve been away without any adult supervision because, by some cosmic joke, Charley and I are actually both legally adults. (Ha.) And when better a time to go than when I’ve been stuck enough on The Knight Shift not to have written anything in a few days?
I will never know the city as well as I know my hometown, or even as well as I know Cambridge. There are some things you just can’t experience if you don’t live somewhere. But I hope this second visit will allow me to give the book a degree of authenticity that it would be lacking if my entire experience of Aberdeen was via the internet.
Because nothing quite compares to seeing somewhere for yourself.