Writing What You Know vs Writing Beyond Personal Experience

6 minutes read

Liz Webb, a graduate of Faber Academy's Writing a Novel course, explores how she stepped outside of her comfort zone and wrote beyond personal experience for her second novel, The Saved.



When I wrote my first novel The Daughter, like many debut authors, I was slap-bang in the middle of ‘writing what I know’. The main protagonist was a sarcastic self-doubter, just like me; I live half a mile from the setting of Highgate Woods; and I’m excruciatingly familiar with the theme of family tensions. There were acres of writing craft to learn, but the content came easily. Though I hasten to add that the actual events were totally imagined: I’ve never dressed up as my mother to terrify my brother into horrific revelations. Yet!


For my second novel The Saved, I decided to make an Olympian leap outside of myself by ‘writing what I totally don’t know’. I chose an unusual medical phenomenon I’d never heard of as the subject, set the story on an isolated Scottish slate island I’ve never visited, and pursued the theme of fear of a partner’s death and a couple’s terrible secrets, when the biggest secret I’ve kept from my husband is how much I recently spent on a weighted blanket.

I made this shift because I felt self-indulgent and bored by the thought mining my own life again immediately. I was (a bit) more comfortable with the craft of writing, so (a bit) less scared of writing into the void. Of course, you never step completely outside of yourself – you’re attracted to subjects because of your personality and you react to research with your own experience-induced slant, but I discovered that it’s enormously freeing to write about new things.

I’d heard about the medical phenomenon that you can be ‘brought back to life’ after being clinically dead for up to six hours, if you have a heart attack at extremely low temperatures, because your organs need drastically less oxygen when cold. As soon as I read ‘you’re not dead, till you’re warm and dead’, I was engrossed and developed a plot: what if a man was ‘brought back from the dead’ and his doctors said he’d fully recovered, but his partner looked into his eyes and didn’t recognise him? I hoped I’d stumbled upon that mythical writing grail of a ‘hook’.


I knew nothing about the subject, but research is easy nowadays: you read books, talk to people and just type your subject into the search box of the internet to access endless articles, interviews, videos and research. I found detailed descriptions of ‘clinically dead’ people brought back to life hours later: a skier in Norway, a hiker in the Spanish Pyrenees and seven youths in a fjord in Denmark. And because hypothermic cardiac arrest is a relatively new and exciting field of medicine, there were many scientific papers, and interviews from different viewpoints: patients, doctors and relations. Once I had a draft, I got an actual doctor to check the medical stuff but with the wealth of research I’d done, I was ok.


But where to set the book? I don’t believe in anything airy-fairy but there’s an odd synchronicity to focus. As soon as you concentrate on a subject you find connections and opportunities. The week I decided to set my story in a very cold English-speaking watery place, I met a writer called Sarah Clayton, who was running a residential workshop on the Scottish island of Seil. It was a long way to go with a total stranger, but no risk no gain, so off I trotted. And, oh my God, I walked straight into my book. Seil and the nearby islands of Easdale and Luing are slate islands, with stunningly alien slate-strewn beaches. I discovered that while slate is a tough substance, when broken it can never be put back together as bits sheer off. I had my motif for how far a doubting couple can push each other till they pass the point of no return. Everything on the islands was so vivid and inspiring: the woody clink of the flat grey slates; the one-storey white cottages with their jaw-droppingly thick walls; the shockingly dramatic ever-changing weather; the sheer drops from the hills; and the freezing sea with its dramatic whirlpools. Once I had a first draft, I made a second trip to really absorb details and as well as setting, plot and characters, the all-important feel of my book arose from everything I experienced. Also, if I hadn’t risked going on the trip, I’d never have met writing-mentor Sarah Clayton who is a great inspirer and friend.

Trying something new invariably pays off, one way or another, like taking the leap of going on Faber Academy's Writing a Novel course three years ago, which gave me my writing group with whom I Zoom regularly and who will be life-long friends.

Finally, there’s choosing to go out of your comfort zone for your book, and there’s being forced way out. My character Nancy was terrified of the love of her life dying. I understood the theoretical fear, yet had never been in the seizing middle of it. But when writing the first draft, a close loved one had severe heart problems and I spent the year in and out of hospital with her, terrified she’d die, looking into her eyes after major procedures and wondering if she was still the same person. In an awful twist of fate, I got first-hand experience of a loved one’s heart problems, the agonised waiting and in particular the bizarre fear that you have somehow willed a tragedy into life. I felt I’d somehow magicked my relation’s problems into existence by writing a novel about heart problems. So, I gave my protagonist Nancy a subplot of something she felt very guilty about, leading her to panic that she’d caused and deserved her partner’s heart attack. I would never have chosen to have this new experience but it undoubtedly sparked a strong inner conflict in my protagonist and hopefully, a visceral intensity to my book. My relation is thankfully doing well now.


So, with ‘writing what you don’t know’, don’t be afraid, because everything’s easy to research and you’ll find endless connections and inspirations once you start actively looking. And do push yourself out of your comfort zone, it will set your imagination alight.


I hope you enjoy my new novel The Saved. Given the manner in which the universe got over-enthusiastically on board with inspiring it, I think next time I should write about someone winning the lottery!


Image of author Liz Webb

Liz Webb originally trained as a classical dancer, then worked as a secretary, stationery shop manager, art class model, cocktail waitress, stand-up comic, voice-over artist, script editor and radio drama producer, before becoming a novelist. She lives in North London.


Her second novel, The Saved, is published on 25th January 2024.

Writing a Novel is designed to support aspiring fiction writers to develop their craft over six months, with courses in London (at Faber’s HQ in Hatton Garden), Newcastle and online.


A six-month programme of seminars, sessions will cover all the essentials of novel writing – including character, story, structure, plotting, voice, dialogue, conflict and more.


Find out more about the next iterations of Writing a Novel here.


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