Writing the book you want to read (even when you’re not an expert in the field) – Sally Hepworth

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By Sally Hepworth

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ― Toni Morrison ♥

I’ve always loved Morrison’s saying. The idea that everyone has the potential to write his or her own favorite book is an appealing one, and it’s natural that writers will want to write the kind of books they like to read. But it’s not always as simple as that. What if you enjoy reading courtroom dramas, but you’re not a lawyer or a judge? What if you love the idea of using architecture in your novels, but you’re not an architect? How can you write the book you want to read if you’re not an expert in the field? Well, here are a few tricks I learned while writing my novel, The Things We Keep:

1. Start by making a list of ALL the elements in the book you want to read

The book you want to read is more than just ‘courtroom drama’ or ‘architecture’ or ‘Alzheimer’s’. While planning your novel, think about all the things that excite you when you read. Do you like a bit of romance? Some mystery? An unforeseen plot twist? (Remember: It’s okay to have more than one of these in your novel, in fact, it’s a good idea). Look at your favorite books and see what they have in common. Ask yourself: what drives the plot in the books I like to read?

Once you have your answers, make a list.

It will look something like this:
– Mystery
– Menace
– High stakes – death?
– Romance

This list will become your roadmap to writing the book you want to read. And once you have your roadmap…

2. If you are not an expert in your chosen topic, read widely

The best way to sound like you know what you’re talking about is to know what you’re talking about. In preparation for writing your novel, read as widely as you can about your topic until the terminology becomes second nature. As you read, keep your list (point 1) at the forefront of your mind, making notes of how you can incorporate what you’ve learned to create mystery and menace, heighten the stakes, and test the romances you’ve created.

3. Enlist an expert

Books are a wonderful start when researching a topic, but nothing will ever beat a flesh-and-blood expert. If you already know that person, wonderful. If not, don’t panic. I’ve found that when I tell people I am writing a novel, they are generally happy to answer my questions as long as I am respectful of their time. I always follow up with a small gift or note of thanks (particularly important if you want to ask them again.)

4. Stop talking to your experts

When it’s time to start the actual writing, focus on the story. If you’ve immersed yourself in enough research you’ll be surprised by how much knowledge you’ll bring to the page. Now is not the time to double-check the type of gasoline your protagonist’s car takes or what kind of plants would grow in the garden at this time of year. Write the scene as best as you can and mark areas with an X that need to be followed up on or fact-checked. And remember, when it comes down to it, you’re writing a novel, not a text-book. Readers will forgive you for making a few mistakes if your novel is gripping enough.

5. Don’t lose sight of what your book is really about

Sometimes, in an attempt to jam everything on your list into your book, your plot can start to feel random. But the book you want to read should be bigger than the sum of its plot points. The theme is what your book is really about – in effect, the glue that holds your novel together. Sometimes the theme presents itself right away, other times you don’t see it until the second or third draft. Regardless of timing, when your theme emerges, grab it and use it to add meaning and layers to your plot. And when your plot is more than what happens next, guess what? You have a novel. Maybe even a great one. Maybe even the book you want to read.

Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives and The Things We Keep. The Things We Keep was a Library Journal Pick in the U.S. for January 2016, and an Indie Next Pick in the U.S. for February 2016. Sally’s novels have been published worldwide in English and have been translated into over ten languages. Sally lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two children.


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