‘Write what you know.’ Really? Reply

This week we’re looking at selecting material for writing fiction. Writers are often told to write what they know, but what does that advice mean? The video ends with a writing exercise to practice the skill of writing what we don’t know – or what we’ve only just learned about.

Zoe Heller on ‘Write what you know’
Nathan Englander on ‘Write what you know’

Writing exercise: Choose from the following list of places somewhere you’ve never been and write a detailed description of what a character experiences as she or he travels through this location.

The harbour of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Aabpara Market in Islamabad, Pakistan
The Cuillin Mountains on the Isle of Skye, Scotland
The Riverfront in St Charles, Missouri, United States
Brick Lane in London, England
Namakunde, Angola
Dalton Post, Yukon, Canada
Keleti Railway Station, Budapest, Hungary

If you want to make it harder, change the date; for instance, try to describe the location as it would have been in 1982 or 1956.

Video transcript follows below:

Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ford said the best piece of writing advice he ever received was ‘Don’t have children.’ He took the advice and has never had children, and yet, through his Frank Bascombe novels, he’s become one of his generation’s greatest chroniclers of family life and the trials of parenthood. So where does that leave the famous advice to ‘write what you know?’

Misunderstood, that advice seems to suggest that nobody should write fantasy or science fiction or books set long in the past. But the mistake, I think, is to assume that we can only know things through lived experience.

Lived experience is certainly important. For a start, we have no experience of emotion besides our own. There’s a story about the realist novelist Gustave Flaubert. After he published Madame Bovary a female correspondent pestered him to reveal upon whom he’d based the title character. ‘Vraiment, Gustave! You must tell us! Who is the real Madame Bovary?’ And eventually Flaubert is supposed to have replied, ‘Madame Bovary is me.’

The point, perhaps, is that even if your character lives on the planet Stiggiwonk in the year 2090, if your character is afraid, it is to your own fear you must refer.

But as for the facts of an external world, there are other ways we can come by that knowledge. If you do want to write about the planet Stiggiwonk in the year 2090 then you’ll need to make a sustained imaginative effort. Terry Pratchett was once asked about world creation in a radio interview, and he revealed:

I spend days thinking in absurd detail about agricultural irrigation systems and such like. When you work out the practicalities, the world becomes real to you. And if it’s real to you, it will be real to your readers. Plus, it’s out of the practicalities that much of the comedy arises.

But if you’re writing about some element of our world, as it is today or as it was in the past, no amount of imaginative effort will compensate for not knowing your material through lived experience. That’s where research comes in, and the good news is that we have more avenues for research than any previous generation of writers.

The internet means that with a bit of work we can often fake a passable knowledge of a job we’ve never done or a place we’ve never been to. Here’s a writing exercise I love doing. Choose a place you’ve never been to and write a detailed description of what a character experiences as she or he travels through it. Use Google maps and image searches and business websites and guides to local wildlife and anything else that helps. Try to ensure that no reader could guess you’ve never been there.

Below this video you’ll find some suggestions of locations to write about, or you can make up your own. You’ll also find links to some other thoughts on ‘writing what you know’ from Zoe Heller and Nathan Englander.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

(The thumbnail art was created by Aranjuez. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/people/idlebrand/)

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