WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW–BUT WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
“Write what you know!” will surely sound familiar to anyone who has ever taken a writing class, from school on up. It sounds like very restricting advice. Does it mean you can write only the sort of story that can be concocted from your own life experiences? What if you have lived all your life in the same place, maybe somewhere rural or otherwise far removed from any of the big centers of human activity? The range of possibilities for stories you can write would seem miniscule if that were indeed true, though many very successful and famous authors have done just that. Jane Austen, for example!
Writing what you know need not be so restricting, however. For there are many ways of knowing and not all of them require personal experience. We can know by making the effort to learn, whether by travel or reading and other research or by empathy and the use of the imagination. If personal experience were the only way of knowing, I would not have been able to write a hundred and more novels and novellas, almost all of them set in Regency Britain with characters from the aristocratic classes. Although I grew up in Britain, I did it somewhat later than the early 19thcentury and as a member of a working class family in Wales.
When I wrote A MASKED DECEPTION, my first book, published in 1985, I had read all of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and numerous other authors who wrote Regency-era romances—Edith Layton, Barbara Hazard, Joan Wolf, Catherine Coulter, to name just a few. I had read history books and had done my best to find out as much as I could about details like clothing and vehicles, food and manners, etiquette and gender roles and all the other details necessary for a novel but not so easy to find in history books. At least, it was not easy in those days, when there was no internet. Because I grew up in Wales, I still had a British “voice” and a feel for what it was like to live in Britain. When I believed that I could deal convincingly and accurately with the world I had chosen for my own stories, I started writing longhand at the kitchen table during the evenings after my school classes had been prepared and all my student papers had been corrected and graded. I was not at all sure I knew enough (I’m still not) but I did my best and kept on learning. I am still doing it!
If one is going to write about something about which one has no direct experience, then one really ought to make every effort get it right, to make it as authentic as possible. Do the homework! Do the research. When I set BEYOND THE SUNRISE in Spain and Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars, for example, I read exhaustively about every maneuver and every battle that was fought there and every shot that was fired, or so it seemed. I ended up using only a fraction of what I had learned, but I have found that that is always the case. One rule of writing fiction is that one should never let one’s research show! One should never include a fascinating historical detail just because it is fascinating. It needs to serve a purpose in the plot.
There is another type of knowing in addition to experience and research, and perhaps it is the most important of all. It is imaginative knowing, the ability to create a world that is all your own even if it must conform to historical fact (the exception to this is fantasy, but even fantasy must have a logic that makes it seem authentic). It is the imaginative ability to put yourself in a particular setting and know what it feels like to be there. It is, most importantly, the ability to identify and empathize with your characters. It is essential to good fiction to know (not just to understand) them to the very depths of their soul, to know how they think and speak and behave, to know their history, to know where their deepest pain lies. It is important to know their world, for they do not exist in a vacuum. They live in a particular place at a particular time, and that setting can make all the difference. If they go to Vauxhall Gardens in London for an evening of revelry, it is of course important to know as much as possible about the gardens. It is equally important to know imaginatively what it feels to be there at a particular time in history and on a particular occasion with a particular set of companions, all senses and emotions alive. It is essential to be able to convey all these levels of knowing to the reader.
If a character is deaf or blind or maimed or is very shy or plain or unusually beautiful or any of a myriad other things, it is important to know what that feels like and to find a way of making sure the reader feels it too. Being deaf in the early 19th century, for example, meant something very different from what it means today. Most deaf mutes (as they were called then) ended up in insane asylums because it was assumed they were mentally defective. Showing a deaf mute from the inside in SILENT MELODY was a huge challenge but one I absolutely loved taking on. Much of this type of interior knowing has to come from the imagination, from an ability to identify with other people’s idiosyncrasies and joys and pains and, in this case, to know what it feels like to be deaf and unable to communicate with other people. Here is one question I had to consider: Was it debilitating for the deaf heroine, making her hopelessly dependent upon the pity and aid of her family? Or were there depths of experience that made her world a place of wonder unknown to all the people around her who were handicapped by their ability to hear and speak? Hint: she is the heroine, so there can be nothing abject about her.
There is still no better advice for any writer than to write what you know. However, it is not such confining advice as it first appears to be. Your knowledge can always be expanded. Always! You have to put effort into acquiring the knowledge, it is true, if you want to write with authority and credibility. But learning what you need to know is part of the fun. It does not mean just reading old tomes in the bowels of dusty libraries (though it can include that!). It can also mean travel or watching movies or reading novels. And of course these days there is the internet with its unlimited access to a wealth of knowledge upon any subject under the sun. And then there is the imagination, a writer’s most precious gift, to go to work upon all the variously acquired knowledge in order to produce a riveting and believable work of fiction that is uniquely your own.
To one person who leaves a comment below by Thursday, January 10, I will send a signed copy of either BEYOND THE SUNRISE or SILENT MELODY—winner’s choice.
[The winner is JERICCA CROW. Congratulations to her and many thanks for all your comments. I really enjoyed reading them.]