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.


  1. I totally agree with you, I am a writer who loves to make things up, but afterwards I always see bits of me, my history, my experiences, in stories that seem very far from autobiographical. I think you're right that "write what you know" has been misunderstood, because otherwise what use is the term "fiction"? But I imagine a writer can't write what they don't know- how would you put into words what it is that you don't know? Another philosophical conundrum! Perhaps writing & knowing are simply two complete separate and unrelated spheres...

  2. It is definitely an aspect of philosopy, this idea of 'not knowing - not understanding'. maybe it's what prevents us from understanding or seeing alians (ETs) or being able to experience aspects of the universe that is outside out remit; like some animals, who can only see in black and white...they simply could not imagine colour. We need a philospher to put us right on this one, but I do agree that even fantasy words need a basis in what we already know.

  3. Nina, I've just been reading your blog below which was very interesting. I am one of those writers who love writing what they don't know, and then have to do a lot of research to try to make it authentic. But it's great when you really do know and can write with confidence.

  4. Is it impossible to see outside our own understanding of the world? I propose that each and everytime a person invents something so radical it really is 'something new under the sun', the consciousness of human kind is widened by a fraction. We have been widening our consciousnessess bit by bit for centuries.
    Respectfully submitted; Lee Fielding

  5. I always feel that one is always allowed to pretend about what is true, as long as one is not misleading anyone. Readers willingly suspend disbelief if the writing is sufficiently concrete, detailed, and emotive - but I think readers need to know a bit about where they stand with accuracy (otherwise, they would get quite annoyed).

    Obviously, the reader doesn't need to be able to interpret whether every sentence is known or unknown. Clearly when we get a statement as difficult to interpret as 'let's go back to the future', we don't care either way about how its supposed to be interpreted:

    Are you 'going back there', 'going back then', or just metaphorically going 'back' - as it were.

    Naturally enough, the metaphorical option is ruled out here. The idea of time travel itself treats time as if it is a place - as if it is something that you can get to if you travel.

    And, of course, it is all pure, complete fantasy and farce - which is precisely why knowledge of full interpretation doesn't matter - basically we've already got the idea: - we are on the same page concerning the author's intentions - that what is intended is fantasy and farce.

    For those of you who were not on the same page, and thought 'let's go back to the future' really happened: Well each of yous true believers could literally end up in two different places at once, and if there are two of you there, you are no longer identical to yourself, or at least, you are cancelling yourself out. Counting the same person twice - counting 'you' twice by counting 'you' in space and then adding 'you' in time - is always clearly a mistake.

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  7. I have thought about this over the last few days and broadly I agree - at least in the sense I think it was intended.

    But when I was a painter my tutor used to say 'you can't truly know what you're painting until you've completed it'. The idea of working from a notion became essential to my art.

    And I take that into my writing too - the act of writing clarifies our thoughts - it orders them, prioritises, and helps us to understand what we know from what we thought we did.

    In this sense writing 'what we know' is an end point rather than a beginning.

    For a wonderful video of this in action, see John Skinner painting at this link - the final transformation towards the end of the process is astounding. The video is seriously worth the effort as an alternative teaching aide

  8. Using your own 'emotional familiarity' is very well put. Shakespeare couldn't have written Othello or Shylock if he had had to know what it was to be black or Jewish; but he could tap into the outsider in himself. 'Emotional familiarity' is also what the reader brings to the table, as I too don't know what it is to be black or Jewish, yet I can sympathise with both Othello and Shylock because Shakespeare helps me 'tap in'. I think the writer forms a kind of emotional conduit between subject and reader, a creative interpreter of life's meanings. We may not necessarily write about what we know best, but writing is often an attempt to understand and explore things we half know, things we suspect, things that intrigue us. If a writer doesn't draw on what he or she knows at some level, where on earth does it come from?

  9. Enjoyed your blog Nina.
    I think people misunderstand the phrase 'write what you know', just as my new students tell me 'everyone has a book inside them', therefore anyone can write a book.
    Writing about what we know gives our writing authenticity, we're coming from a position of knowledge. We can use the Venice we visited as the backdrop to a novel but we don't describe the day-to-day minutiae of our visit there; we can use personality traits of people we know to develop our characters but we might change their sex and certainly their names so the character becomes a fiction; and we can pare down an incident or anecdote that happened and rebuild it into something that has relevance to our plot. I despair when students argue that 'this actually happened to me' or 'it's based on my life' because real life doesn't make good fiction. Fiction represents life; it doesn't mirror it.