At some point, all writers get told to “write what you know.” It’s part of the landscape of a writer’s life, like being told, “I’d love to write, but I’d never find the time,” or being cornered at parties by bores panting to impart long tedious anecdotes that “would make a good novel.”
In the pantheon of Things That Writers Get Told, “write what you know” recurs at intervals, regular as sunrise; seductively simple and just common sense, surely?
Actually, “write what you know” can be surprisingly divisive for writers. On the one hand, people stack up the writers who have drawn heavily on their own lives and circumstances; Catherine Cookson with her plucky Geordie lasses and their illegitimate children; Tess Gerritsen‘s successful pathology career which predates her bestseller books; Nancy Mitford laying out her famous family’s eccentricities in pitiless, scandalising detail; Elizabeth von Arnim caricaturing her dour first husband in her runaway classic, Elizabeth and her German Garden, and filleting her abusive second husband in her later novel Vera.
And it can be appealing to translate your own experiences into fiction, a way of reclaiming and transcending difficult and upsetting times. Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn satirised her husband, Carl Bernstein, as “a man capable of having sex with a Venetian blind” after he had an affair with a mutual friend while Ephron was pregnant with their second child.
The idea of the roman a clef as revenge has a massive appeal, but it only works if the victim doesn’t sue. Fortunately for Ephron, Bernstein didn’t, possibly because a libel case would have to depend on his being able to be recognised from the description of a man who could get romantic with a window covering.
Others have suffered the consequences though; Byron’s lover, Caroline Lamb, found herself blackballed from society after her novel Glenarvon was read by people whom she had caricatured within it. So success isn’t everything; writing what you know can bring other problems.
Against these writers who have successfully written what they knew, we can stack up a bunch of others who ignored it and succeeded anyway. Emily Bronte is the classic example of a writer who magnificently ignored this advice. She had never had a love affair when she dreamt up Heathcliff.
Roddy Doyle wrote a gritty, compelling account of a woman surviving an abusive marriage in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and Stephen King’s breakthrough novel Carrie has as its heroine a teenage girl. None of these great books would have been possible if you had to be limited to writing just what you knew.
J. K. Rowling wrote her Harry Potter series about a boy at boarding school. If you take it to its logical extreme, how can anyone write what they know and write sci-fi, or fantasy? How can I write a male protagonist?
But writers don’t have to be split into those who write what they know and those who don’t. At some point, everyone brings to their writing their own experiences and feelings; the question is how, not whether, you write what you know.
Emily Bronte may have never so much as kissed a man before producing Heathcliff and Cathy’s tempestuous romance, but she set her classic on the wild and deserted Yorkshire moors where she herself lived. J. K. Rowling dreamed up Harry and Hogwarts, but the influence of her mother’s death on her writing led to some achingly poignant scenes for the orphaned Harry, looking to find some connection with his lost parents. (She also based the character of smart-aleck Hermione on herself aged eleven.)
The character of Carrie began as a composite of two girls Stephen King knew at high school. His plot was his own, but the girls who eventually became Carrie were drawn from real life. The truth is, writing what you know is important, but not everything you write needs to come from your life, and it doesn’t mean producing something which absolutely reproduces your own circumstances every time.
What it does mean is this: know people. Study, and understand how people react, and you will write believable, consistent characters, which no fiction piece can do without. Just as there is always something from your life that you can bring to your writing, there is always a choice of what to bring.
For example, a policewoman could write about the police, about the criminals she meets, about the family she goes home to at night, or the ice hockey she plays in her spare time. We are all multifaceted beings; there’s a lot of choice out there. Write what you know isn’t a safety net, it’s a challenge. Set your stories somewhere you know. Do your research if you need to; don’t try to bluff your way through without it, because someone is bound to catch on.
Then get out there, find your working space and – in whatever way you choose, as far as you want to – write what you know.
Claire Thomas Hawnt is a freelance journalist and writer of fiction, also writing under her maiden name of Claire Louisa Thomas. Her book BiOlogy is available on Kindle here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/BiOlogy
Find Claire on Twitter @failedspinster