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Write what you see.

One of the first things you are told when you want to be a writer is to ‘write about what you know.’ Really? It’s a good tip, but it only goes so far, and most good writers ignore it – Shakespeare never visited Italy or ancient Troy; he was never a crowned king; he didn’t go mad. Anyway, what you know can be expanded by trips to the library – or, more likely these days, browsing on the Internet.

The tip doesn’t place much value, either, on a writer’s imagination: did Terry Pratchett live on the back of a tortoise? Did Ruth Rendell join the Police? Or go round murdering people for dark psychological reasons? Better, perhaps, is the tip to write convincingly, having done enough research for your needs – be it into your own experiences, or through wider reading and travel, or through dreaming up a whole new world.

Tracy Chevalier wrote a book based on a picture that fascinated her, The Girl with a Pearl Earring. She liked the painting and had a poster of the Vermeer painting on her wall for years, but never really thought much about it until one day a thought struck her. Why did Vermeer make her look like that? Suddenly the painting stopped being just a picture on the wall; it was a story (and a very good one too, once she’d put it down on paper!)

So here is a tip from her: When looking at a picture, write what you see. In an article in The Times recently, she elaborated on this:

‘First I act like a movie camera and zoom in on details; then pan out to view it from a distance, and from one side or another. Each angle gives me a new perspective. When I zoom in, I pick out the details: the clothes people wear, the background, the landscape, the colours and brushstrokes the artist has used. Then I start asking questions. Why is she wearing that? What is he thinking about? Do they love or hate each other? What happened just before this painting was made? Where does that road lead to? Asking and answering draws me in so I become part of the creation of the story that the painting is telling.’

With The Girl with a Pearl Earring, the process certainly worked for her. It could work for the rest of us too – though I suggest we pick a different picture!

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