When you love writing, it’s terrifying to find yourself staring at a blank screen or an empty notebook, completely unable to summon a single word. Most authors have experienced mind-numbing episodes of being unable to write but, don’t worry, you can break free!
What causes writer’s block?
1) Perfectionism and procrastination. Naturally, you want your writing to be perfect, but if absolute perfection is your goal, you may spend too long thinking about how to achieve it instead of actually starting to write. The longer you delay by ‘making busy’ on unnecessary tasks, the harder it becomes.
2) Fear. Many authors feel vulnerable at exposing their inmost thoughts. Then there’s fear of rejection by agents, publishers and readers. This anxiety is perfectly normal and only becomes a problem when it limits your creativity.
3) External factors. Finding enough time, space and energy to write. Family or personal issues, frequent distractions or, currently, a pandemic health crisis, may sap your creativity and make you too irritable or exhausted to focus.
So how can you overcome writer’s block?
There’s no single way that works for everyone. Step away from the laptop for a period of quiet reflection or chat with a trusted friend. Look inside yourself and discover what’s bothering you. Probe the parts of your story that make you feel most uncomfortable. However painful, it’s necessary to confront those niggling inner worries so you can deal with them.
In my experience, a block usually happens when I subconsciously know that one of my characters isn’t behaving in a way that’s true to their values or their time or that there’s a gaping plot hole and I don’t know how to solve it.
1) A fresh perspective. Take some time away from your desk. Movement is important. Walk or run in the fresh air, preferably somewhere in a natural, rather than an urban, environment. Go alone, or with your dog, so you’re not distracted by conversation. Don’t over-think but keep your mind open and receptive to new thoughts.
2) Daydream. Pose yourself a question about your difficulties, and allow your mind to drift. The best times for tapping into your unconscious are when you’re falling asleep or in the moments before you’re fully awake. Alternatives are when travelling, swimming, running, gardening or even ironing.
3) Interviewing your characters. It can be really helpful to ‘chat’ to your characters. Fix an image in your mind of what they look like. Use a photograph, if it helps. Ask them about their childhood and what incidents shaped them. Do they seek out conflict or shy away from it? What is their secret goal and what, or who is stopping them from achieving it? What do they fear most? What is their most shameful secret? Listen attentively while imagining the timbre of their voice. Notice any tics or habits while they ‘speak’ to you. Again, walking while you do this can open up your mind.
4) Change your environment. Try working in another room, outside or in a coffee shop. Tidy your desk and turn off notifications. Use a notebook and pen instead of a laptop. Write some poetry or freewrite for a while.
5) Do something different. Read a book, make fresh coffee, try a new recipe, listen to music or Skype a friend. Just don’t let these become a form of procrastination!
Research is the key.
The suggestions above apply to writing any kind of fiction, but there are some other measures you can take for historical fiction. The first thing is to immerse yourself in the period you’re writing about. You need to understand how people thought and behaved in that particular era and must be able to see clearly the details of your settings before you write about them.
1) Settings. There’s nothing quite like actually being there to add authenticity to a setting. It’s not only being able to describe what you see, but also noting sensory details. Describing the smell of a river, the feel of the ground under bare feet, the sound of sheep on the hill or the taste of a local cheese will bring a setting vividly to life for you and your readers.
2) Contemporary literature. Read books, plays, poetry and newspapers of the time to gain an understanding of what political and social events shaped people’s thinking.
3) Maps. These are fascinating. Place names often give a clue to even earlier times, and it’s interesting to compare old maps to a modern ordinance survey to see what has changed. I plot my characters’ journeys, noting what they might see – mountains, a vinegar factory or a famous landmark. Use some of that information in your story.
4) Historic houses. Visiting houses that existed during the era of your story can help you to see what it was like to live then. Unless you’re writing about the aristocracy, the imposing drawing rooms may be of less relevance than the kitchens, wash-house and servants’ quarters.
5) Reenactments. These really bring history to life, whether it’s a medieval pageant with a reenactment of the Battle of Bosworth, a Viking festival, the Battle of Hastings or the Battle of Newbury. The camp followers are as much a source of realistic and inspiring detail as the warring soldiers.
6) Costume museums. This isn’t only about looking at fancy ballgowns. It’s necessary to understand how the clothing of the time worked. Find out when zips were first invented, what kind of shoes your characters might have worn and how a woman’s corset might have impeded her day.
Removing the emphasis away from your fear of being ‘blocked’ and discovering more about the period of history you’re writing about will revive your enthusiasm and bring fresh ideas to your story.
It’s far better to write an imperfect first draft than nothing at all, so try some of these suggestions and then set a timer for twenty minutes of writing time. In the end, the only thing that breaks writer’s block is to actually write.
Charlotte Betts is a multi-award-winning author of romantic historical novels and draws inspiration from stories of strong women at turning points in history. Careful historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place. She is currently working on the Spindrift Trilogy, set in a Cornish artists’ community at the turn of the twentieth century. Follow onTwitter at @CharlotteBetts1 or on Facebook at Charlotte Betts – Author