“Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.” – Joe Haldeman
And yet Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War was heavily influenced by his experiences as a Vietnam vet. I’m nowhere near brave enough to disagree with a best-seller like Joe Haldeman but fortunately I don’t think I have to. We agree from different directions.
Five Lies Creative Writing Teachers Tell makes the same point. ‘Write what you know’ is good but often misused advice: it can become so sacred a truth that it gets hammered in to the point where you’re not even allowed to use your imagination. As the writer points out, J.K. Rowling isn’t really a wizard.
So, I would amend the adage: ‘Write what you know, and then make stuff up on top of it.’
Or even better, ‘Write what somebody knows …’
My most basic level of knowledge is knowing what it is to be alive. I’m a human being with a place in the world – sensory input going 24/7, human relationships, knowing what I like and what I don’t. A character on a page has to give the impression of a similar level of existence. If you can’t believe they existed before you opened the book, or that they will go on existing after you close it, then the author isn’t writing what they know.
But with that given, then it’s time to start making stuff up.
I’ve never time travelled – but I have been in some fairly insalubrious third world slums, so if I want to imagine a European city of previous centuries, that’s what I picture. I’ve never worn a spacesuit, but I have scuba dived: I know the sounds and sensations and slightly claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed by your personal life support system, keeping you alive bare centimetres from an environment that could kill you, simultaneously giving you immense freedom and severely curtailing your possibilities. I’ve never been in a spaceship, but I’ve travelled by aeroplane, so I know that illusion of normality coupled with the ever-present knowledge at the back of your head that you’re in the belly of a fantastically complicated machine hurtling through the sky several miles above the ground and that isn’t normal at all.
Other things I have done: driven a car; sailed a boat; grown up in an army family; fired several types of gun; stood on the floor of an active volcano; walked up Snowdon, across Salisbury Plain and through an Indonesian rain forest (not all on the same day); flown an aeroplane under supervision; taken off, flown and landed a glider solo; been in unrequited love; sat a deathbed vigil. I’ve never divorced, had a serious illness or died, but friends have and (sorry guys) you can bet I was paying close attention, filing it all away at the back of my head. And each of those experiences, or scenarios developed and extrapolated from them, has appeared in my published writing.
And if I don’t know something then I have enough clever friends that I can generally find someone to ask. I was recently able to quiz a retired GP on the best kind of fracture to have, from a dramatic point of view, and how to perform a field amputation. I doubt she has any direct experience of the latter, but again, based on what she does know she was able to extrapolate.
Or, of course, I can ask you, the client. I’ll assume that you want a book written based on your own experiences. Stuff has happened to you that you think could make a good story, or at least will provide the basis for one. It’s my job to talk to you and find out what makes you tick. Then I can put you on the page, at first a complete stranger to the reader but very soon – within a few pages – someone they like and trust and want to know more about. Because of your familiarity, they will trust you to tell them about the novelty of your world, and will keep on reading your story. And the other characters in the tale – the antagonists, the sidekicks, the romantic interests, the supporting roles or just the people in the background who barely get a line – will all be real too. They will all be based on and developed from something that you, or I, or someone knows.