From Hook to Book

Don’t Write What You Know

“Are you French? No, then set your novel in Australia. Write what you know!”  Words to spark a blogpost and debate.

The jury is out on my Google search into who first spoke the words Write what you know, though Mark Twain and William Faulkner seem to be the main-listed culprits.

Write what you Know would probably have been the first (and most oft repeated) piece of advice I’ve heard quoted as a writer. For a long time, I stuck slavishly to it. Believed in it. Passed on the words of wisdom myself. UNTIL…the day I realised it was given and explained (to me) by someone who took it as literally as I took it from her. Too often “write what you know” advice is given to new writers without adding the all important addendum, until you learn to write and are ready to explore beyond the breadth of your own experience. Or boredom takes you out, whichever comes first.

I mean, was Anna Sewell ever a horse? Was Toni Morrison ever a slave? Did Geraldine Brooks ever live in a sixteenth-century village consumed by the plague?

No. And why didn’t they need to have lived the life, in the place, at the time of the characters and stories they were writing? Because one doesn’t have to be a horse to know how any warm-blooded creature feels to be beaten, starved or left out in the freezing cold. We all recognise and know pain. We all experience illness and the fear of our own mortality. Few of us escape the pain of loss of a loved one.

We live, therefore we experience. As writers we can take those emotions and feelings and impose them on our characters and story events, transport them to places and eras we’ve not personally lived in and make them real. Authenticity comes through connecting the reader to the emotional and lived experience in ways that resonate, in ways a reader can engage with and feel the pain, pleasure or emotional happenings in the story.

I find I sometimes draw subconsciously on my own personal, emotional experiences and don’t necessarily recognise the origins until later. A bit like dreams, I suppose. Some mean nothing and others we can see the wellspring, even if the dawning doesn’t come until much later on.

Sometimes my writing reveals that I know more than I think I know. This proves itself in those rare and wondrous moments when words appear on the page and I sit back and go, Wow! Where did that insight, knowledge, revelation come from? Other times, fine details and rich imagery of place and setting emerge out of much reading and research I may have done months or even years before.

Research, lots and lots of days and weeks of research, shows in the authenticity and emotional connection of good story and characterisation, not merely through the insertion of historical facts or costume/period details. So I can write about a girl in France, enmeshed in a war I did not fight in the trenches or on the homefront. I know how this girl feels to be betrayed, lied to, and scared on finding herself alone in the world, because I can summon up memories of those exact same feelings. I might need to magnify them significantly for my character’s usage, but I’ve been lied to, betrayed and found myself alone in a foreign country, albeit in the latter case by choice. I can impose like feelings and emotions onto my character and make her experience real through adding description and evoking the place.

Yes, I can write what I don’t know, what I’ve never experienced and yet still make it real. So I’m on the no side of the debate team that says “Don’t write what you know”.

If writers did not give themselves permission to write outside their experience, there’d be no science fiction, no spec fiction, no fantasy. No hobbits, or time-travelling Doctor Whos, no Star Wars, ET or Hunger Games.

Personal experience and emotions may be the foundation stone, but the walls and windows come from imagination. Otherwise we’d all be writing the same old same old.

Writing fiction takes courage and research and getting into the psyche of living, breathing people, or animals in Black Beauty’s case. If a writer can take me into the skin of a horse, a Frenchwoman, a soldier, a space warrior, or a Neanderthal tribesman and make it real, I’m happy to go on the journey with them. That is the writer’s job – to transport the reader beyond their disbelief, to a new place, time, life. The writer must believe in their story and bring it to life beyond what they knew when they started out the writing.

Do you write what you know? Or do you go where no man, woman or writer has gone before you? 

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6 thoughts on “Don’t Write What You Know

  1. Lovely post, Chris.
    And I definitely agree that you don’t need to write “what you know”. How boring would that be!

  2. All very well said Chris. Go for it!!!!!

    And I would be in real trouble, seeing as I always seem to write about animals.

  3. Too true, Chris, and the world would be so much poorer without hobbits or Doctor Who (for example). To add another slant on this, I’ll suggest that you can write about strange new worlds while still writing about what you know in terms of themes and emotions. For example, I think nearly everyone identifies with The Hobbit – we all KNOW the feeling that one little person can’t really make much difference, that the world is too big and complex for any of us to have an impact. We love The Hobbit because it turns that negative internal dialogue on its head. Yay!
    Thanks for another thought provoking post, Chris.

    • I absolutely agree, Julie. I think the little person can make the difference no matter where the story is situated. It’s the emotions and universal themes we recognise and that make us cheer or jeer.
      Thanks for your comment. Lovely to have you drop by.
      Chris.

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