All kinds of theories you get told in writing workshops, ‘Write what you know’ and that sort of thing, which I don’t believe at all. One of the great joys in writing is to try and explore what you don’t know. That’s exciting to me. – Kiran Desai
Write What You Know.
What does that mean, in practice? The trouble with a lot of writing what you know is that no one wants to read it. Because readers see through fiction-which-is-fact, sniff out wish-fulfilment and close their ears to lecturing. If they want any of those things, they can switch on the TV.
Fiction isn’t life. Otherwise, why bother? Toss aside Fifty Shades of Grey, grab the restraints, drag him away from the PlayStation and get creative. Just don’t write about it afterwards.
Here are seven ways WWYK can backfire:
But It’s All True!
Just because an experience happened, doesn’t make it a good story. When you’re telling a story, you’re giving a reader an experience. Relating yours, no matter how well you dress it up, is always going to be second-hand. Take the reader on their own journeys; use their own experiences to breathe colour and intelligibility; allow them the privilege of relating to the narrative first hand. Maybe reignite old memories or establish new ideals. Give them something new.
Same goes for character. One author used real people twice in her work. Both times beta-readers picked them out of the line-up at first glance. They stick out like Bob Hoskins in Roger Rabbit. They aren’t part of that world, they have no place there and the author’s crude attempts to disguise personal feelings towards those individuals are as obvious as a teenage blush. There’s nothing wrong with using the odd trait, mannerism or look from someone you know to add realism to a character, but make sure each person you create has a life and history of their own.
Even if a story is true, it must be believable as a story. Reality often makes the worst fiction. Add those details which bring the piece to fictional life. Omit those which don’t. – Janet Skeslien Charles
JJ Marsh: “Someone I know spent a long time writing up an incredible round-the-world adventure. I’d heard so many of these stories; in the pub, in the park, around dinner tables. The storyteller possessed drama, humour, vocal range and facial dexterity. Those verbally recounted stories were always applauded. The book? I couldn’t finish. The equivalent of several thousand holiday slides.”
Contrast such a disappointment with Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Not only a distinctive voice, but more than one level of alienation and an increasingly tense plot involves the reader in an adventure. Yes, it’s a true story, but one hell of a way to tell it. Memoirs such as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It or Just A Boy by Richard McCann break the mould because the story they tell compels a reader through compassion. It should be fiction but it’s not, that’s how the reader copes with such gritty realism.
And if You Look To Your Left ...
Lecturing, something most writers have fallen foul of many times, can make a reader’s toes curl in embarrassment. Much like a bound foot. Foot binding was very popular in 10th century China because men found it to be highly attractive, and therefore became Chinese women's way of being beautiful and to show that they were worthy of a husband. The foot binding process begins with a young girl (4-7 years old) soaking her feet in warm water or animal blood with herbs. (Thank you, Wikipedia).
This is nothing more than another adage – Show, Not Tell. Don’t inform the reader, allow them to glimpse the details, catch a peep behind a screen, hear the muffled cry of a young voice expressing old pain.
Look at writers such as Eowyn Ivey (Alaska) or Monique Roffey (Trinidad) and absorb how they select and employ geographical detail like seasoning to enrich and attract, without drowning the reader in reportage. Read Salman Rushdie or Louis de Bernières as a lesson in how historical segues act as mortar to the story bricks, whilst rendering the two part of the whole.
If you need to be an expert in a given field – maybe a pathologist in crime fiction or WWII fighter pilot in a historical romance – make sure it’s the characters who sound like they’re living the life. Not the author trawling the internet.
One tip – our own Gillian Hamer took an Open University Forensics’ Course. In her novel where a pathologist takes the lead role, she must sound like she knows her DNA from her CAP – and sound like she means it. If the language and the words become second nature to the writer, rather than something quickly cut and pasted from a website, it adds so much more depth and gravitas to the characters. And the readers will appreciate the effort without even knowing what went into it. Making something incredibly difficult look incredibly easy is vital.
Me, But Better
Another pitfall is the writer who uses fiction as wish-fulfilment. This story’s hero/heroine is IRRESISTIBLY sexy, tall/petite, witty/winsome, glamorous/gifted, muscular/feisty, handy with a Colt 45/cauliflower coulis, genetically/genitally enhanced, an arrogant bad boy/a sassy sex kitten, a horse-whispering human marshmallow in leather trousers/a free spirit who sits naked in a peacock chair while her lover paints the sunset.
This kind of fantasy belongs in teenage notebooks or in locked jewellery boxes, encoded and set to spontaneously combust if any other eyes but the author’s should happen upon them. Unless you're E.L. James.
Just as your average teenager tries on a variety of identities to see which suits, a writer should experiment, move away from oneself and stretch beyond what is comfortable.
I became interested in writing different points of view. And I think I came from a student background and cultural generation which was very nervous about writing outside one’s own experience; gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and cultural space. I think The Slap is my attempt to resist that. Not to say those considerations aren’t important, but if I can’t write as a woman, a black person, an old man or a teenage girl, what the hell am I doing writing at all? – Christos TsiolkasIsn’t It Exotic, Don’t You Think?
At a workshop for non-Fiction Writers in Zurich in 2011, Andrew Crofts (The Ghost Writer) listened to various accounts of the expat experience and finally, with a deep sigh, told it like it is.
“Yes, but the only people who will be interested are other expats. Write a blog instead.”
This astute writer knows her audience and shows how it should be done.
Who are you talking to? Other versions of you? Or do you want to address a wider audience with a story anyone can access? Why will anyone else care about what you care about – and how can you make that happen?
Empathy is a key ingredient. The old adage of getting the reader onside from Chapter One is a rule to ignore at your peril. Whatever genre you chose, make sure that the characters and world you create encompass the reader, so that every emotion is heightened and explored. Hate is fine, sympathy is better. Anger is necessary, passion is perfect.
Write for a wide audience, so that people of all backgrounds and persuasions can live and involve themselves in your world. Fiction is not the place for walking on narrow ground.
Dull as dishwater
Another problem many writers face when they stick to safe territory and write what they know is that unless they are widely read or have imaginative scope beyond a normal person’s wildest dreams … life can be pretty crap. And often pretty dull.
Most of us in our daily life relive on repeat a pretty good take on Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. It’s normal and banal and just life. We don’t make eye contact with a tall, dark handsome stranger on the bus and experience a life-changing frisson of electricity. We rarely see an armed robbery during our lunch hour while picking up an egg and cress roll from Greggs. No one is going to want to read about an eight-hour shift at a call centre, when the highlight of the day was a visit by the window cleaner.
There are, of course, elements of our life we can take with us on our journey into fiction. Emotions. Experience. Knowledge. Conversations. History. We have a melting pot of resource information bubbling away in our brains. But to make all of those ingredients come together in a perfect recipe, we need to transport the reader away from the normality of everyday life.
Even if we’re only transporting them on the Tube from Holborn to Greenwich. Even if we’re not planning on whisking them away to the Maldives or Great Barrier Reef. It’s still the job of the writer to create a believable world to relate their story, that although the reader can pick out bits they recognise, fits the story you have created – not the one you live on a daily basis.
From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive. – Ernest HemingwayLocation, Location, Location
Many of you will know that location is a strong theme in Triskele books. And while it’s clearly not practical for every author to visit the place they set their novels (our JD Smith may find difficulties visiting the lands of Palmyra circa 1st Century AD) a strong setting can really carry a story – and again it needs to be something that although the reader may recognise in passing, does not linger too long on the M25.
Some writers, take for example, Stef Penney and her wonderful The Tenderness of Wolves, admit they have never set foot on the land they so wonderfully describe. But they spend years researching the layout, the towns, the traditions and languages. This is a gift coupled with hard work.
Many writers prefer to visit the location to feel the atmosphere of a setting, and there is nothing more satisfying than to be told in a review that your description of a place has prompted the reader to pay their first visit.
But let's not forget that there are times when writing what you know is the most important thing you can do - for yourself, and for others. Jade Amoli-Jackson is a humbling example.
It’s a big world out there. So, whichever way you do it, take a chance.
Break the rules. Open up and let the reader in.
by JJ Marsh