WRITING ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW
It’s a commonplace, often advised to new writers, that you should write about what you know. Superficially it seems sensible advice, but on a closer look it isn’t clear; it surely can’t mean, for example, that writers should stick to the autobiographical? Where do fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction fit in the scheme of writing about what one knows? Or is it the case that, like many rules, the trick is in the application and in recognising the wise exception, rather as good writers, having mastered the language, then judiciously throw grammar and the rest out of the window – innit?
The risks in writing about what you don’t know are fairly obvious. If the writer isn’t comfortable with his material he (or she) exposes himself to the possibility of anachronisms and other errors and to a general lack of authenticity and psychological truth. Recently I was asked to cast a glance at a draft of a “rum and bum” novel of the Napoleonic wars, and saw that within a few pages the author had made a noticeable slip in mentioning that a character lived in a “Georgian” house, forgetting that, in their own eyes, his creations were simply people living in houses not “Georgians” living in “Georgian” houses. However, to return to the subject of judicious exceptions, I’ve several times introduced anachronisms and “errors” of fact because… well, simply because I felt like it.
There’s a tension between writing about what you know and the desire to stretch yourself and explore new areas either within or in the world out there. Or perhaps you want to write something different simply for your own entertainment? I had to face up to this when I wrote The English Lady Murderers’ Society. I’d never written a novel from the POV of a woman and now I decided I wanted to, and to make things easier, I decided to eliminate the male POV entirely and to introduce seven female characters instead of one. Why? Because it was fun. Because it was technically demanding. Because it was a present for my missus and a way of discovering whether I’d learned anything from forty years of marriage. A friend said, “You must have had to get in touch with your feminine side?” It was more a case that my “feminine side” moved in and started choosing curtains.
I think my book is a good instance of applying the maxim wisely. For all that I was adopting the POV of seven highly individualised women, I think I was still writing about “what I know”. Knowledge isn’t limited to experience. Sound observation and effective research are also part of the mix. As is the ability to empathise with the situation of others because we all have analogues to their experiences. I wrote my book from a blend of observation of my mother and my women friends and an attempt to grasp the travails that my wife has gone through in putting up with me all this time. And, according to those same women friends (and the missus), I seem largely to have succeeded. During the writing I was conscious of the limitations of my knowledge and in one instance I deliberately backed off and approached a character differently because I didn’t feel I could adequately grasp her. The character of Poppy is a young lesbian of twenty-five. It wasn’t her sexuality that posed the problem (love is love and I understand it well enough), but her age and background: I had no feel at all for the voice, manners and experiences of a twenty-five year old woman. Then it occurred to me that this limitation wasn’t unique to me but would be true to some degree in the case of the middle-aged women who formed the rest of my cast of characters, and accordingly I made Poppy as mysterious to them as she was to me and so avoided the need to grapple with her too closely.
As this example shows, in being alert to writing about what you know, you can develop methods for dealing with what you don’t know.