Writing What You Know
The advice to 'write what you know' is usually attributed to Mark Twain (as soon as I saw this photo, I had to use it and had to know why he has no shirt on - here's the reason). When I first heard this, it felt a bit restrictive. After all, what did I know? I was a mum and a teacher. I hadn't done a lot of travelling, so my locations were also fairly limited. What on earth was I going to write about? Children was the obvious answer! I did write a few books for children about children, but I knew I wanted to write something different.
Of course, I quickly realised that the advice was a little more broad-ranging than that. Derek Neale describes writing what you know as, 'being aware of your own world, both past and present, in as full a way as possible.' (book listed below) However, whilst this may be useful if you are writing a book based on events in your own life, it does mean
that it would be far more difficult for crime writers who write from the perspective of the criminal to stay on the right side of the law. It would also make for incredibly boring and limited narratives. In his next chapter, Neale acknowledges this point and talks about the use of research and imagination, referring specifically to the work of Pat Barker. Her Regeneration trilogy uses some of her grandfather's experiences in World War One, but also draws on her extensive research about the work of Dr Rivers and the treatment of shell shock, as well as the war poems of Owen and Sassoon.
My first novel for adults draws heavily on my own experiences and I can see strong parts of my own personality in all three of the main characters. I also know which real people inspired the other characters. However, not one of the characters is based specifically on any single person. If they were, I couldn't have written them. The settings I put them in are ones which were all familiar to me however, and this made it much easier for me to include the level of detail I wanted to about the cities my characters live in.
My second novel began life being based in one location and by the end, had become an entirely different one. This time however, the characters themselves and the events of the story are completely fictional. The house itself provided the inspiration for the story this time.
The novel I'm currently working on is set in a fictional version of my hometown and I've put my characters into real events that happened in the history of the town, but this time I asked the question, 'what if the idea that there were spies, was true?' The narrative came from that one question.
However, for each of these novels, I've had to supplement what I already knew with vast amounts of research. This is expected for a novel. However, as I've recently discovered, short stories can often involve as much, if not more, research. The summer issue of Makarelle is going to be on the theme of 'tattoo' and I knew I wanted to write something that was based on the drum tattoo as well as an actual tattoo. If you were to look at my google search history for the two stories, you would find:
- the distance from London to Monte Cassino
- the stages of the battle to take Monte Cassino in 1944
- 1980s upholstery
- Torvill & Dean's 1984 Winter Olympics routine (including the story they invented for it)
- untraceable poisons
- poisonous flowers
- names of nail polish shades
- meanings of flowers
- burner phones and their use
- flat prices and locations in Bath
And all for two stories about various types of tattoo...
So, with a little more experience behind me, in response to the advice to 'write what you know', I say this:
Write about what interests you - if you don't know enough to get a novel out of it, do some research and make it something you 'know'. Yes, you can draw on your experiences of how people react to things, or use people/places you know as a base to start from, but ultimately, your story should be one you want to tell. For me, that's far more important than limiting yourself to only writing what you know. You can use research to find out the facts you need, but if you don't find your writing interesting, I can pretty much guarantee no-one else will either!
Neale, D. (2006) ‘Writing What You Know’ and 'Writing What You Come To Know' in Anderson, L. (ed) Creative Writing A Workbook With Readings, Abingdon, Routledge, pp.444-69