How to Write: Write what you know, or not…

writing books

Most books on how to write will tell you this:  write what you know.

If you have some major area of expertise, they say, you should use that as a background for your novels.  Dick Francis, a famous jockey, wrote crime novels set against the backdrop of the horse-racing world, with spectacular success.  John Grisham was a criminal lawyer and politician before publishing fabulously successful legal thrillers.  Agatha Christie drew on her war work as a hospital dispenser when writing her detective fiction.  All of these authors, and many more, have made huge successes of writing about what they know.

BUT –

(And the word BUT has a bit of fairy dust in it that magically negates everything that comes before it, have you noticed that?)

I once heard novelist Rachel Cusk at a reading on the subject.  She was stridently against the idea of writing about what you know.  She said words to the effect of:

‘You know, we write fiction, and the clue is in the name.  Fiction.  It means we make it up.’

Take a moment to think about this:  the genre of science fiction would never have been invented if we only wrote about what we know.  No one has travelled across the Universe of the star ship USSS Enterprise, after all.  Fancy a world without ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Game of Thrones’?  That would be the logical conclusion.

And what about crime?  Yes, I agree there are a number of very talented writers producing procedural crime novels who have a background in criminal pathology or forensics, but how many truly great crime writers have actually personally killed someone? (None, we hope.)

‘Write what you know’ does not, therefore, take account of the most wonderful asset we have, the thing that makes human beings extraordinary amongst all the myriad of life on this planet:

Imagination

Imagination enables us to fly beyond the stars at warp speed, fight dragons with broadswords, fall in love with Benedict Cumberbatch and have him love us back.  And all in our lunch break.  Think about it –who really wants to write about their day job when they can write about this stuff?

There is, of course, a caveat.  Sometimes you need to do research.  And research is a double-edged sword on which you fall at your own peril:

I wrote a book set in London.  I have not lived in London.  I gave it to a friend to read, and he was a Londoner, born and bred.  He asked me about the car chase – Where are they?  Where are they going?  What road are they on?  He was frustrated because he knew the city well and he could not orient himself within the action.  I had not done my research and I did not know the setting well enough to wing it.  The novel collapsed for the reader as a result.

The opposite is true.  I wrote this story, set partly in Oxford, a city I know well and visit often.  I was able to undertake the depicted walk myself, just to be sure I had the details and the route right.  The result was a story that was adored by readers who knew the city too.  I had a personal email from one who was delighted that memories of her student days had been rekindled by my work.

So, getting the details right is important.  If you don’t, you can look like an idiot who doesn’t know what he is talking about, and the credibility of your story collapses.

BUT

(Fairy dust again.)

There is such a thing as having too much detail.  The first novel I wrote was set in the Iron Age, around 230BC, on the Newbury Downs.  It is not an area I know well, though I have driven through it.  And I have no background in archaeology or prehistory, so I had to research it all myself.  It took me seven years to finish it, and I gave up doing word counts after 250,000.  I knew too much.  I had too much detail – there are things I know about Iron Age saddles that normal human beings really shouldn’t know.  It’s doubtful that any reader would care.

And yes, you always get the odd accuracy fiend who emails you to say (puts on squeaky voice) ‘Er, the spoon your hero was using in scene 23?  Well, those kinds of spoons were not invented till three hundred years after the date you posit…’ etc etc.  But those are not your average readers.  Unless you write sci-fi, in which case you had damn well know your warp cores from your improbability drives.

“The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.”

-Benjamin Disraeli

The point I am trying to make here is this:  Ignore the advice.

Write what you want to write.

Write what you need to write.

(And if you have to, do the research.)

I promise to talk more about research in a future post, but in the meantime, do this:

Write the novel you want to read.

Happy creating,

EF

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