Jill Steeples: 'Write What You Know!' & extract from SUMMER AT THE DOG & DUCK

As a newbie writer, there’s lots of writing tips out there and one little nugget that crops up time and time again is the one that says ‘write what you know.’

I’ve often wondered about this particular line of advice, but I suppose it comes from the idea that, as a writer, you have a natural source of material to draw from in your own life experiences.  If you’ve spent twenty years working in the police force then you’re in the ideal position to write a police procedural story. Or maybe if your background is as a doctor or nurse then writing a hospital drama would be a lot easier for you than it might be for me.

Thinking about it though, if authors only adhered to writing about topics they’d experienced for themselves, then surely we would miss out on a whole host of marvelous stories. I’m sure J K Rowling didn’t have any first hand experience of wizards or magic before creating her magical stories, nor did Thomas Harris have experience of murdering people when he created his chilling serial killer, Hannibal Lecter.  

With the wealth of information available now on the internet, writers have access to information and research material that makes writing about subjects, time periods or places that they might never have come across before, that much easier. In The Tenderness of Wolves, the best-selling, Costa Award winning novel, author Stef Penney portrayed the wilderness of the Northern Frontier in Can-ada to great critical acclaim, without ever having visited that part of the world prior to writing her book.

So I think the ‘write what you know’ rule, like a lot of writing advice, and life advice in general, should be taken with a pinch of salt and considered, but definitely not stuck to religiously. Nor should it hold you back in deciding what it is you want to write about.  

It is the author’s job is to create a fictional world that we can believe in, to create characters that we can understand and relate to, and to take us on a journey that has us turning the pages wanting to find out more.  

In the second of my Dog & Duck books, Summer at the Dog & Duck, I return to the country pub of The Dog & Duck, set in the idyllic English village of Little Leyton. Now, pubs are something I’ve definitely had a lot of experience of!  My family originate from the East End of London where the pub, along with the church, was at the hub of the community. As a child I can clearly remember accompanying the adults to the pub, but this was at a time when children weren’t permitted inside licensed establishments so I was made to wait outside with a bottle of pop and a packet of crisps to keep me occupied. Not that I can remember being upset about this arrangement. I waited eagerly for the adults to emerge, desperate to hear their stories of what had been happening inside and to hear about all the characters they’d met there. Because for me the most important aspect to any story is the characters. We want to go on the journey with them, experience their hopes and expectations, feel their joy and pain, and be with them every step of the way to the very last page of the book. That’s what I set out to do in Summer at The Dog & Duck. 

With two more books to write in the Dog & Duck series, I will definitely be sticking to what I know best – pubs, small town or village situations and characters that I would like to know that little bit better. That’s not to say, in the future, I won’t be conjuring up something else entirely. Who knows, maybe next time around, I’ll try writing a vampire novel or a thriller set in deepest Siberia because after all rules are there to be broken! So watch this space…

Read an extract from SUMMER AT THE DOG & DUCK

‘Come on, Digby, let’s get a move on, we haven’t got all day.’

Digby looked up at me, his ears pricked, and immediately walked on at a faster pace, his tail wagging as if understanding my every word. That nice smiley lady off the telly had assured me that spring had well and truly sprung, and she wasn’t wrong. Little Leyton was feeling positively balmy this morning. I wriggled out of my fur-trimmed anorak and hung it over my arm.

We’d been out for over an hour already, walking our usual route across the fields and down the back lanes and now we were heading back along the High Street towards the pub. I breathed a sigh of contentment, a smile spreading involuntarily across my lips. The pub – my pub, who would have thought it? There were days when I could hardly believe it myself. After all the upheaval of last year, when we first discovered the pub was up for sale and the future of the village inn had looked uncertain for a long time, I still had to pinch myself sometimes to truly believe that I was actually running the Dog and Duck now.

Crossing the road, a car tooted its horn and I span round to look, my heart lifting at the sight of Max Golding’s distinctive Jeep, which drew to a halt at the kerbside. The driver’s door was flung open and he jumped out.

‘Good morning! How’s my favourite landlady?’

‘Very well, thank you. And how’s my favourite hotshot property developer?’

Max nodded, giving consideration to that idea, before his mouth curled in amusement, clearly approving of the description. He came towards me and slipped his hands around my waist, pulling me in for a kiss.

‘Yep, good. Much better now,’ he said, his voice dropping an octave.

Butterflies danced in my stomach. I called it the Max effect. Something to do, I suspected, with his broad frame, mussed up hair and dark eyes that danced with intent, eyes that were watching me closely now. We’d been dating properly for a few months now, yet still he had the power to make my heart beat faster in my chest, and my skin tingle in anticipation.
‘Time for a coffee?’ I asked, mentally shaking myself free of the giddiness.

He glanced at his watch and grimaced. ‘I’d love to, but I’ve got a conference call at eleven, and a few other things I have to see to before then. We’re still on for Friday though?’

‘Yep, can’t wait,’ I said, quashing my disappointment with a smile.

Just then another car, a little blue jaunty number that I didn’t recognise, pulled up behind Max’s Jeep, and the passenger door window eased open and the driver leaned across the seat to speak to us. ‘Hello, Max, Ellie!’ The woman’s voice was warm and friendly.

I did a double take.


I don’t know who was more surprised, me or Max. The last person I’d expected to see this morning was Max’s ex-girlfriend, looking as indecently fresh-faced and naturally glamorous as I remembered. She’d left the village last autumn when she and Max decided to go their separate ways after a five year long relationship. It had been an amicable split, so Max had told me. Even so, when we got together soon afterwards it was something of a relief to know that his lovely ex was out of the way, having returned to her life in London. I’d barely given her a second thought since. But, sadly, now here she was… and she hadn’t grown any less gorgeous in the meantime.

‘Lovely to see you both,’ she beamed. I only wished I shared her enthusiasm at reconnecting, but, in truth, I was struggling.

‘You too,’ said Max, as charming as ever. ‘Although this is something of a surprise. What brings you to Little Leyton?’

‘Ah, long story,’ said Sasha, her gaze flickering across to me for the briefest moment. ‘In fact, I’m glad I’ve run into you, I was hoping we could have a chat. There was something I wanted to discuss, if that’s okay?’ This was very much intended for Max, and not for me, I quickly realised.

‘Sure thing,’ said Max. ‘I’m tied up for the next hour or so, but I’ll be free later if you want to pop down to the manor.’
‘Great!’ breezed Sasha.

Great, I repeated silently through gritted teeth, while smiling sweetly. Time enough for Max to entertain his ex, but not enough time for a coffee with me. I see… As if reading my mind, Max’s arm slipped around my waist and he gave me a gentle squeeze, by way of compensation, I supposed. If Sasha was perturbed by Max’s show of affection towards me, she certainly didn't show it.
My gaze drifted off down the High Street towards the pub where I noticed someone standing beneath the recently renovated sign of The Dog and Duck; a man peering through the glazed pane of the front door.
‘Look, I’m going to have to go,’ I said, curious now as to whether I had a delivery, although infinitely more curious as to what Sasha might want to discuss with Max.

‘See you later,’ said Max, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

‘Lovely to see you, Ellie,’ said Sasha, from her car, lifting her hand to wave at me. ‘We must catch up soon.’

‘Yes,’ I said, giving her a little wave in return. I tugged gently on Digby’s lead and scurried off towards the Dog and Duck, wondering if Sasha and I actually had anything to catch up on. She wasn’t a local girl and I’d only met her a couple of times when she’d still been with Max. As far as I knew, he was the only thing we had in common and I didn’t much fancy swapping notes on that particular subject.

SUMMER AT THE DOG & DUCK is out now! Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play

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