Saturday, 5 February 2011

Write What You Know?

A student wrote to me recently, saying…They do say ‘write what you know’. However, having recently read an article written by Susan Hill in a writer’s magazine, I was thrown into a bit of a turmoil. I began to question what I am writing and wondered if I should hang on to the belief of writing what I know. She said that writers should use their imagination and make things up – not write about what they know. Having thought about it in some depth, I am not sure I actually agree with her entirely. Really I am not writing about me. I am writing about a character who is loosely based on someone I know…well, someone I kind of know through someone who I know very well…Hopefully you will understand what I am trying to fathom out.
I certainly did have sympathy with Amanda – and I’m sure a lot of writers will too. Write what you know is one of the oldest pieces of advice offered to writers, but confusion does arise about this – the advice seems contradictory. Many writers create vivid pieces after researching a subject from scratch. Writers of fiction invent new worlds, or set stories in historic periods they can’t experience.  How does this fit with the notion of writing only what you know?
Jean Burnett in her study
For me, ‘writing what you know’ means drawing on your own experience, memories, knowledge and passions, then taking your imagination and powers of invention to create something entirely new.
Struggling with subjects that have no interest for you will result in work that is flat and stilted – the lack of passion will show. The very act of researching new ideas will be made easier if you can summon up a sincere interest. But no one is going to know everything (well okay, some people can retain amazing amounts of fact/memories, but they are not your average dude), so some research is always necessary.
My friend Jean Burnett has recently placed an historic novel (The Bad Miss Bennet) with Little Brown for publication next year. She knows quite a lot about Regency England, but that didn’t mean she could skimp on the research, and doing it threw up some interesting details that enriched her story. However, Jean’s passion for the period is what gave her that extra mile while writing…and you really feel you are in Brighton and London after the Napoleonic wars as you read.
‘Writing what you know’ also relates to the people you write about; your fictional characters. You can use  things you understand about your own psyche, and what you remember about your own past, as well as what life has taught you about other people, to enable you to get under the skin of almost any character, however different they are from you.  
As a children’s writer, I have often step into the shoes of characters that are nothing like me…children from other lands and cultures…children who are experiencing things I’ve never undergone.  As I write, I try to recall how I felt when I had experiences of my own that made me at least feel as they would be feeling; scared, excited, frustrated, moody, tearful. Dropping your own emotional familiarity into the character’s mind and body allows you to write with confidence on things you know little or nothing about.
Sometimes amazing, invented settings come out of what we already know. What would Middle Earth have been like if Tolkien had not witnessed the mud and slaughter of the First World War? Would Alice every have fallen down the tunnel if  Charles Dodgson hadn’t seen the private tunnel that leads from a Brighton garden down to the beach? It's sometimes a suprise, but 'writing what you know’ can lead to startlingly varied and imaginative worlds.
My advice, is don’t lose sight of what you know and what you have a passion to find out. But as you write, ask one question of yourself all the time…WHAT IF? That’s the question which turns what you know into new and exciting worlds of fiction.