Writing is unlike other “entertainment” occupations. Compared with, say, an athlete, a singer, an actor, or a model, careers where youth is usually prized (few in such careers hit it “big” much beyond age 30), an author normally improves with time and a career “peak” may not come until well into older age. It does happen, but it is rare when looking back on a writer’s career that the first novel was “the best novel.”
Scott [Fitzgerald]. . . was a famous author before he had done much living. To fill his books, he had to create his life, to make it as fascinating as possible. (In The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Sheilah Graham, 1976., in Paradise Lost, A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, by David Brown, 2017.)
Indeed if one is to, as Hemingway famously noted, write what you know, a problem with youth is it doesn’t yet usually know very much regarding many life arenas. That has always been so and is unavoidable. In most cases, a 20 year old cannot match a 40 year old or a 60 year old when it comes to overall life experience…
…simply because older people have been on the life trek for longer and have probably seen and experienced more.
Just considering myself…
Yep, that is pretty much me, well over two decades ago… having been raised mostly in East Setauket (Se-talk-et), Long Island, New York.
New York City – I was born there – was central in my upbringing and in my young adulthood.
As you may also know, the Catskill Mountains north of the city are close to my heart. My (now late) novelist uncle had an “A-frame” cabin there when I was a kid, and our families spent a couple of summers at the place
occasionally pretending to hunt (and not all that far from where my wife and I now have our own house in Windham). So those mountains have been a big part of my life and became central in my two recent historical novels.
I also wanted to get away to see other places. The first distant place I went on my own was Alaska; I lived there for a time as a university student. Subsequently I traveled back there again in the late 1990s… which provided me with story material nearly twenty years later.
Travel – particularly when engaged in relatively young – is certainly one activity that helps create life experiences. It enables a building up of a personal bank of events and interactions. You will almost certainly find that pile of memories useful eventually if you turn to writing.
At age 20, I never imagined my life would have taken this turn. A relationship I fell into with a certain young lady (long before I met my now wife), led me to travel here to Europe in my mid-twenties. Paris is famously one of those places that provides more material than anyone can use in just one book.
London is the same – another extraordinary place.
And there’s always Rome.
And the list could go on, of course.
Lesser known locations are useful in originality terms – simply because they aren’t often used in other books. I decided that the small city of Lorient, France, which I know well, on its Brittany coast, needed to be featured. It is now in ALL of my novels so far.
My wife and I had owned a house for years on the southern English coast in the town of Christchurch.
So I knew I had to use Christchurch. I even portrayed neighbo(u)rs… but I didn’t tell them that in advance. Having read the book, the wife laughed to me as she made it clear that I had not gotten away with that unnoticed: “That’s us! You’ve written about us!” (Uh, I admitted I had. LOL!)
Above all, a writer needs to listen. You will almost certainly be surprised (both positively and negatively) and learn from what you hear when encountering those you would not back at home. All of that may, again, come in useful to you someday at a keyboard. (Jefferson was the main author of the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence, U.S. diplomat in France from 1784-89, and from 1801-09 third U.S. president. I have managed to mention him in all five novels so far.)
Some current day travel may also help you “picture” the past better. Many places we visit now have existed – at least in smaller versions – for possibly centuries. I have been surprised at inspirations I have stumbled upon.
For example, I decided to place the main English family in Conventions: The Garden At Paris as residing just outside of Chesham, Buckinghamshire. That town is now basically in outer west London’s commuter belt. (It is the last stop on the London Underground’s Metropolitan line.) But back in the 1770s-80s, it was a rural place well away from a then far smaller London.
Why Chesham? In early 2016, we had walked through the town with my wife’s aunt and I was floored. Previously, over the years we had only driven directly to her house away from the center, so I had never been in the old center. I had been planning to use Bath, Somerset (near where we had lived in 2014-15), but decided Bath had been done to death in novels. I didn’t want THAT level of close association with the immortal Miss Austen.
So I decided I would highlight instead a town that is rarely in books and films… but should be.
And so Chesham it was.
By chance our rented house in Codicote, Hertfordshire between 2016-19 was over 300 years old. When my main (American) character in the Conventions novel wanted a small house, I thought of the one in which I was sitting. That led me to write of it in Conventions… as it might have been back in “1789.”
Incidentally, the Goat Inn is still there… as it was too in “1789.”
Just west of Paris, in 2019 commuter country now too, is a village named Aigremont. You have likely never heard of it. I had been through it two decades ago, and wanting a story location outside of Paris in the 1790s, and – like Chesham – that was not much written about already, it popped to my mind. I believed it would more than do for the lesser known, but real, location I was seeking and it became central in the two (thus far) 18th-19th century novels.
In 2018, on a trip to Wales, in the port town of Tenby, we walked by a harbor house that Admiral Horatio Nelson had lived in during 1802. He had not been alone there. He had lived in it with his girlfriend… and, uh, her husband.
That husband – Lord Hamilton – who knew his wife was involved with Nelson, was obviously rather, uh, open-minded.
Lastly, we bought a house here in Potton, Bedfordshire, in April:
Our house itself is only the 1980s. It is obviously not of 18th-19th century interest. However, when I learned what the wider area was historically, and particularly who had lived nearby, I knew I had to place some happenings hereabouts.
I know I certainly could not have written nearly all of that – and so much more in all of my books – at “age 20.” Relatively speaking I knew almost NOTHING at that age compared to what I know now. I also know there is no way I could from 2019 also get “my 20 year old self” to understand that; only my own personal passage of time has TRULY proven to me, in looking back, of how
much of an idiot I was little I really knew at “age 20.” 😉
Have a good day, wherever you may be. 🙂