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Emma Stonex: What to Write When You Don’t Know What to Write

January 24, 2021
January 24, 2021

So many writers know they want to write, but are stuck staring at a blank screen, struggling to find inspiration. They feel stuck, unable to start writing because a story hasn’t come to them fully formed. Often, they feel their life simply isn’t interesting enough to stir up strong feelings in readers, and after tapping in a few sentences give up entirely, or start trawling through blogs and articles for writing content and tips.

This kind of writer’s block can feel insurmountable, but it’s generally premised on the ill-informed idea that we must write what we know—and only what we know. But did Stephen King know what it was to be a high-school girl covered in pig’s blood? Did Tolkien visit Middle-earth, or Lewis Carroll explore Wonderland, or Madeline Miller serve as Achilles’s right-hand man?

If you really want to write, let your ideas roam free. Follow the example of great story-weavers who’ve come before, and stop depending on your own life to stir up your ideas and inspiration. Instead, think about moments that have captured your attention, objects that intrigue you, a person or conversation that sticks in your mind—whether you like it or not. Look over our previous post on drawing inspiration from fairy tales and think about the ones that most touched you. Use these intrigues to create a story that will keep you coming back, day in day out.

When Emma Stonex shared this blog post idea, we were delighted as it so chimes with our philosophy at The Novelry. Emma is the author of several books written under a pseudonym, and before becoming a writer, she worked as an editor at a major publishing house. The Lamplighters is her debut novel under her own name. Inspired by a haunting true story, it is a gorgeous and atmospheric novel about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote tower miles from the Cornish coast—and about the wives left behind. On New Year’s Eve, 1972, a boat pulls up to the Maiden Rock lighthouse with relief for the keepers...

I started my career as a writer by writing what I know

There’s a lot of pressure on authors to know what to write. I wrote nine novels before the one I knew nothing about. There aren’t any lighthouse keepers in my family, I haven’t (thank goodness) mourned a missing person. I don’t even live by the sea.

The Lamplighters isn’t based on my experience on any direct level, and yet strangely it’s the only story to date I’ve felt an urgent need to tell. The advice is to write what you know, but I’m not sure I agree. Writers are curious. If this isn’t a job about occupying new worlds, what is?

The Lamplighters isn’t based on my experience on any direct level, and yet strangely it’s the only story to date I’ve felt an urgent need to tell.

A writer’s trade is her imagination

Writers have a responsibility to learn about other people and other lives, and convey to the reader in an entertaining fashion what they have learned.

The writer must inhabit fresh perspectives, and in doing so, challenge her own. A novel isn’t meant to be a sermon delivered from standing; it’s a machine of moving parts working symbiotically with its readers, both parties engaged in exploring and understanding unfamiliar territory.

Of course, an author puts herself into it. I’ve never kept a lighthouse in the middle of the sea, but I do enjoy being on my own. Like many writers I’m introspective, and I feel an affinity with the ocean and the wild splendor of nature. These are things I gave Arthur, the Principal Keeper of the Maiden Rock, as a character who prefers solitude, but whose life and stories are very different from my own. I had only to imagine taking those qualities to the extreme in order to understand this character.

A novel isn’t meant to be a sermon delivered from standing; it’s a machine of moving parts working symbiotically with its readers, both parties engaged in exploring and understanding unfamiliar territory.
this blog post is emma stonex on writing when you don't have a particular idea or hot topic in mind

Scattering yourself through the novel can help avoid writer’s block

In today’s changed world, we’re all acquainted with the concept of quarantine, but when I began writing in 2018, it felt a welcome escape from the chaos of a hyper-connected society.

There are bits of me all through the novel, from Bill’s memories of scattering ashes in West Bay, to Vince’s taste in poetry and music. But the lighthouse world was altogether new. I wanted to get it right, for it to feel less romantic than authentic, and for, if I were lucky enough, an ex-lighthouse-keeper or his relative to read it and think, yes, it did feel a bit like that.

I returned to the idea that I couldn’t forget

For years, while I was writing other stories, the lantern shone at the back of my mind.

I read everything I could about lighthouses, from technical manuals to memoirs and histories, from interviews with keepers to accounts of the Stevenson engineers.

It didn’t feel like research with a capital R: it was a pleasure, a sly indulgence aside from the book I was supposed to be writing, the muse I’d heard other writers talk about but had never experienced myself.

I remember staying in a Cornish cottage with a friend when the story was only a seed. We were besieged by sea mists. I stayed in bed all day reading about life on a tower lighthouse, feeling, as I looked out my bedroom window and saw nothing but eerie coils of gray, that I might be on one. The ideas percolated of their own accord.

It didn’t feel like research with a capital R: it was a pleasure, a sly indulgence aside from the book I was supposed to be writing, the muse I’d heard other writers talk about but had never experienced myself.

Where does this passion come from? More than passion, in this case: obsession. I steadied my ship against many storms and much heartache on the passage to The Lamplighters being published, but I am sure that if I hadn’t completed this book, it would have refused to be forgotten about; it would have driven me mad before accepting such a fate.

I was learning about a world distant to my own, but at the same time it felt uncannily close to my heart. Why? The lighthouses called me to write about them because they were calling to something inside me. Is it as prosaic as an interest that grows relative to the time you put into it, or is it more mysterious than that?

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My fascination was rooted in childhood

Ever since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by lighthouses.

Land lights carry the charm and beauty of seaside holidays, conjuring memories of crab nets and brown seaweed coiled round the ankles. But the sea stations captivated me most. Miles from shore, their ghostliness lies beyond their abandonment (the last light to be automated in the U.K. was in 1996). It’s in their lonely situation, the vast expanse of water from which they audaciously climb, the melancholy longing they seem to emit like a lost soul looking for others of her kind.

It’s this searching that’s so powerful, I think. The light beam illuminates for ships at sea, but it also reaches for an unnamed thing; it seeks connection through the darkest night and across the greatest distance. For a writer, there are surely few constructions as symbolically rich as this, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

I can trace my love of the sea back to the staircase window at my grandmother’s house on the Isle of Wight. My granddad was a merchant seaman who was away from home for long stretches at a time.

Did I ingest at a young age the idea of a woman competing with the indifferent ocean? Was it the distant view of Fawley Power Station on the mainland that stirred the beginnings of the Maiden Rock? Is this where the sea first spoke to me? Maybe.

It’s this searching that’s so powerful, I think. The light beam illuminates for ships at sea, but it also reaches for an unnamed thing; it seeks connection through the darkest night and across the greatest distance. For a writer, there are surely few constructions as symbolically rich as this, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

Or maybe it was none of those things, just a theme that piqued my interest, and the more I found out about it, the more I wanted to know, the more I wanted to create this world for readers.

When you don’t know what to write, follow your fascination

The scope and variety of literature lies in these weird creative summonses, against whose persuasiveness authors are powerless to resist. In The Lamplighters, Helen poses the question, ‘Why does anyone write about anything?’ I’m still trying to answer that, and when people say, quite rightly, that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, perhaps this is what they mean.

I try to tread as quietly as I can in my books. I prefer not to be seen. Writing is a chance to let other people, lives, and ideas emerge, with the author telling these things as honestly as she can.

Nevertheless, all art is necessarily self-portraiture, and in writing about three lighthouse keepers in the 1970s—in writing about something I didn’t know at all—I ended up reaching a deeper place of recognition and acceptance in myself; I ended up writing my way home.

  • Members of The Novelry writing community can enjoy a recorded writing class with advice from Emma in our Membership Catch Up TV Area.

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry—the world’s top-rated writing school.

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Members of The Novelry team