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Method Writing: is it worth trying things out?

You're talking about that heroin-injecting scene you wrote based on web research, and the person opposite looks you up and down with an 'oh right' expression. Or you put a group sex scene out there and all of a sudden you're getting flirty messages. What is all that about?

People who don’t write have some peculiar misconceptions about writers. The most peculiar being that we've experienced everything we write about - the flip side, if you like, of 'write what you know.'

This idea is self-evident balderdash. Bookshops are full of stories written by men about women, by cis-gendered women about trans men, even - if you can imagine such a thing - books written by women about young male wizards* … there's a reason why the word 'novel' was coined. 'Novel' means something new. A work of imagination. And if we only wrote about what we knew about, there would be no fiction.

Of course, people who are convinced I’m a junkie polyamorist** don't believe Tolkien was three foot six with hairy feet and a passion for mushrooms. I think what this tells us is that people find vice exciting. And of course writers will slip their vices into their novels. Roger Zelazny, like JRR, was very keen on tobacco. I've been guilty, myself, of luxuriant descriptions of food. (I'm very keen on food.)

But the scenes I have drawn from real life, as I found on the Masters', were the ones that readers felt to be false or jarring. They had been shoehorned in. That thing about truth being stranger than fiction? It's certainly less believable. Fiction is designed to have a tidy beginning, middle and end. Real life isn't as neat.

Which doesn't mean you shouldn't try things. It might give your writing an edge. Or will it? Your own experience is likely to be of anecdotal interest only and not comparable to anyone else’s. When Channel 4 fed a random group including celebrities and ex-SAS with Class A’s on camera, the ordained priest had a fair old time, but not everyone was of the same mind. In most cases it's not worth the risk, which is why my search history is full questions that might get me arrested, or at least put under surveillance, my favourite being 'how do you amputate a limb?'

Mutilation aside, I've been guilty of trying things once, or even twice, so that I can better frame the experience into words. I doubt I'll ever have another gong bath, but as a child I used to blindfold myself and walk around bumping into the furniture. I probably wouldn’t go as far as Thomas W Hodgkinson did, writing 'Memoirs of a Stalker' on his phone in a cupboard. But, like all writers, I do what I can to imagine myself within the head of my viewpoint character. My latest novel is narrated by a sexually predatory dress. To this end, I borrowed the dress that inspired the novel (thank you Kay Aplin). I touched it, photographed it, measured it, weighed it. I did not put it on. My imagination had freaked me out far too much for that, and also the dress might not have survived the experience. But I did what was possible, because I had to. I would not have felt my writing was authentic without the sensual experience of touching that dress.

It's my belief that, if it's possible and passes a risk assessment, you should experience the sensual aspect of the things you are writing about. It’s the writer’s equivalent of method acting, and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve had some intense experiences while chasing the ability to describe. I’ve learnt to sail and ski and shoot (none of them, it has to be said, very well) and while some of my experiences were not even as interesting as banal, the openness to new experience has been transformative.

How do you use your experience in your writing? Do you become your characters? Has this ever freaked you out? Have you ever done anything really bonkers in order to put it in your novel, and if anyone was watching, how did you explain yourself?

* William Boyd 'Brazzaville Beach'; Rose Tremain 'Sacred Country'; Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci series

** I made this word up. You can do this too, so long as you know you're doing it.

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