It’s the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens this year, and while much has been written about his life and work, we can still learn a lot from his methods. His depiction of a supposedly-fictional London was so realistic – he clearly drew a lot from how people lived in worked in Victorian society. Some of this he would have just known, but he would have learned a lot from going out to observe the world around him.
We’ve discussed how to write what you know, but sometimes we need to know more. So…
Write what you can find out!
Walk The Streets
Explore places you might not have had occasion to visit before – this even goes for your hometown, or a city you know well. I managed to come across a whole part of my hometown that I’d never visited before, purely because I’d never had reason to be there.
If you find a building that catches your interest, find out about it. Who lived there? What was it used for? Has it always stood on that site, or was it once relocated from elsewhere? The streets are probably no safer than they were in Dickens’ day, so either take a friend, or let someone know where you’re going. Try to have a paper map of the area on hand in case Google Maps sends you down a blind alley, or your phone runs out of battery.
Even if you write horror or sci-fi, you can find the seeds of interesting characters in the people you see going about their daily lives. Why is the man on the Underground looking so furtive? What could that woman have in the oversized handbag? What if that scarf was actually a pet dragon draped around its owner’s neck? This is even better if you can spend a little while enjoying a coffee, and observing those around you.
It’s not eavesdropping – you’re not actually interested in the content of the conversation, just those little offhand phrases that might be just what you needed to ’round out’ a character, or spark an idea.
Consume Local News
I heard an anecdote that Dickens once heard a story about a man who lived by a river, who would pay for the burials of the unfortunate people fished out of the water. Dickens was so impressed by the story that he wrote the man into his own work as a character. The phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ clearly meant a lot to Dickens, and it can mean a lot to you too – if a real person has actually done something, then it will hold more water to your readers than a complete fabrication.
Discover The Stories
Different parts of London were specific to different trades – for example, Spitalfields was once a centre for silk weaving, while mudlarks operated along the banks of the Thames. Your own city is probably no different – in my hometown of Newcastle, the Castle Garth area boasted a doll-making workshop, while the dockyards were a thriving industrial area for shipbuilding. Find an area of your town or city and investigate its history – you might find colourful local characters, infamous scandals or touching tales that could provide inspiration for your own stories.
Never Underestimate Your Local Library
They may hold archives of information, either as old maps, newspaper clippings, or photographs. Any, or all, of these could prove to be useful no matter what genre you write. You can easily get melodrama or ‘human interest’ stories out of photographs of bygone times, while newspaper clippings will provide you with story ideas whether you write steampunk or crime thrillers. Old city maps can be invaluable if you write fantasy and you’re in the ‘world building’ stage. Libraries are a fantastic resource beyond lending books – so use them!
What about you? How have you ‘written where you are’ in the past?