write, what you know

Write What You Know – A Fact or Fallacy?

There’s a writing myth, particularly in fiction, that says a writer should stick to an area of expertise. After all, if you’ve never experienced a situation what gives you the right to write a bestselling novel about said subject? Every author should write what they know! Who the hell are you, to make something up and pass it off as a work of fiction?

In short, you’re a novelist who by the very definition of fiction writing, makes up stories of varying degrees of accuracy. Imagination is everything. After all, your morning commute may fascinate your co-workers when your train breaks down, forcing you to take the bus, but while you’re waiting, a friend pulls up alongside you and saves you from the misery of a slow, agonising journey on public transport. But unless your mate turns out to be an old school friend with superpowers, it’s unlikely to feature on the New York times list.

If every writer stuck to what they’d experienced, we’d live in a world without Star Wars or Harry Potter. Game of Thrones wouldn’t be the most-watched series on TV. Sherlock Holmes and James Bond would never have materialised in the minds of the men who wrote them. No Stephen King. The Handmaids Tale. Marvel and DC comics would never have come to be. We’d have no Shakespeare.

Experience vs Emotion

If I were to write a scene about a character hearing a strange noise coming from downstairs, where would I start? I’ve never lived in a flat with two floors, nor have I had the misfortune of being awoken by a noise downstairs. Sure, I live in the middle of a hectic city, and my sleep’s interrupted by odd noises regularly, but my house has always been small enough not to force me from my bed to investigate the clatter. With my head on my pillow, I can usually tell it’s the cat.

It stands to reason that I have no understanding of how my character would feel. To some degree it’s true, but does that mean I should never write again? I published a short story last month about the aftermath of an Atomic bomb falling on London. I’ve never experienced that feeling, few of us in the western world has, but I drew on past experiences of confusion and not knowing what was happening around me.

It’s a fair critique to question the comparison between waking up on a night bus, still drunk and struggling to comprehend how you ended up 45 minutes in the wrong direction and nuclear war. But it’s about the relationship — the confusion, disorientation and desperation to find somewhere familiar. You don’t need to write about your experiences but use the emotions you’ve felt to understand the severity of situations you’ll hopefully never experience.

Fun fact, I have a phobia of ladybirds. When I was younger, a plague of the insects turned my white bedroom ceiling red with sporadic black dots. That night, I closed the door and set up on the sofa for the night. I kept every door between me, and my room closed, and if I had the option of staying elsewhere, I’d have taken it.

The following morning, I needed to enter my bedroom but fearful of what awaited me behind the closed door, I pulled the handle with caution. I slowly pushed the door and inhaled before I peered through a crack in the doorway. Only when I saw a bright ceiling did I enter the room. Apprehension kept me on edge. I looked around the room and took my time getting my clothes ready. As soon as I had everything I needed, I jolted from the bedroom. I could draw from the anxiety I felt to help write my strange noise downstairs scene.

The Point of Fiction

New writers take the advice to write what you know literally. Some of us, from a writer’s perspective, are lucky enough to have exciting and drama-filled lives that shed light on the deepest of human emotions. But most of us have a few negative memories that we’d never imagine retelling as stories unless we’re socialising with our friends who already have an interest in the main character. Ourselves.

I write about my travel experiences but don’t pass them off as fiction. They’re real. Some may be exciting, some may be interesting, some may be factual, but they weren’t crafted to be read like short stories. They were written to share, inform and entertain. In these tales, I wrote nothing but what my eyes saw, or what I felt. But that’s not the point of fiction.

Most people read fiction as escapism. Our lives are dull. Most days, we wake and go to work, or we go out for a drink or visit a museum, but we wouldn’t want to experience a life worth writing. 2018’s Man Booker winner was a story about a teenager who’s constantly harassed by an older man, known as the Milkman, during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. It’s a compelling story that feels real.

Unfortunately, there are too many of us who may be able to tell this story, but for those who haven’t experienced harassment of a high ranking “terrorist” during a period of war, there are minor situations we can use to tell a story. Fiction is an essential tool in the fight for progression. If we wrote what we knew, then those who know may never have their stories heard. Some stories must be told, regardless of who the writer is because great literature reveals what’s broken inside us.

Nonfiction, Obviously Write What You Know

It’s a well-regarded fact that the genre of non-fiction relies heavily on facts. Authors tell the story of history, physics, psychology and a list of compelling subjects. Experts or well-informed writers are expected to have written these types of books. In the non-fiction category, you assume the author adheres to the rule of write what you know. However, a writer can utilise these books to gather an understanding of subjects outside of what they know.

Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future may help a sci-fi author with an interesting futuristic plot understand what believable feats science may achieve by 2100. Spoiler alert, still no time machines. But if you were to write about a fictional time-traveller, you can find scientific justification for your fictional use of the trope in a non-fiction book.

But not all non-fiction’s based on fact. In Natives, Akala examines the effects of empire on class and race in pre-war British society. Akala tells stories of his childhood and teenager growing up on a north London council estate and excelling his teachers’ preconceived expectations of a black child, despite his mixed heritage. The more you read literature like Akala’s, the wider your understanding of people’s life experiences different to your own will grow.

If you want to write non-fiction, you can use your memories to back-up or explain your facts, but to write great fiction, you need experiences to justify your story. Talk to people like your characters. Commit to understanding the motivation behind their decisions. Discover an identity separate from your own and diversify your writing.

The case of Zadie Smith and White Teeth

Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth follows the lives of three families with different cultural identities through the generations. The characters hop off the pages and entertain the reader. Thrown off by its length, having not read much fiction before, the book inspired my writing and had me eager to wake to spend the day learning about Archie and Samad, their wives and their children through the generations.

Like a lot of Smiths work, the story’s set-in North-West London and centres around mixed heritage. Smith, herself was born to a Jamaican mother, and an English father and raised in north-west of the capital. Later, she’d finish White Teeth while in her final year at Cambridge.

To my limited knowledge, Smith has never lived as a Muslim man from Bangladesh, but she’d have met her characters and spoke to them. You can learn a lot from people if you listen. However, would I understand the challenges of growing up in a multi-ethnic society that still holds a perception of what it means to fit the norm? White Teeth charts the social change in Britain from the 1970s through to the millennium and explores the origins of multi-culturalism from Empire to World War Two.

This is one of my favourite books. It’s interesting to read as the world changes around the characters and their background begin to affect their differences. What we can’t learn from non-fiction most of the time, fiction illuminates a brings to life the real-life experiences of the people around us. Both local and further away. It’s not important to write what you know in a personal experience kind of way, but what you think you should know.

Writing What You Know, The Limitations and How to Do it Properly

Just like you wouldn’t imagine writing about a profession you have no experience in, you wouldn’t write about people you know little about, would you?

In the modern world of Tumblr and Twitter, there are numerous threads poking fun at the way writers try and write characters different to them. Most of this writing comes from the patriarchal sexualisation of women, and most men’s inability to understand that not all women see themselves through their male gaze. Terrible male writers imagine all women wake up, eager to massage their soft breasts intimately and tarnish the remainder of make authors.

I couldn’t write Akala’s natives, using my own experiences, but using the novel as a reference and viewing the world through his eyes, I could use his work to write a believable character with those experiences. Add this to the numerous conversations I’ve had with friends who’ve experienced similar situations, I may write a convincing respectable character that doesn’t look like me.

It’s not necessary to write what you know but to respect what you’ve learnt. If you want to write a story from the perspective of a woman, speak to a woman. Understand what she wants and why she does what she does. She doesn’t cry because she’s a lonely attention seeker, it’s likely due to a hormonal imbalance essential to early human survival that most of us aren’t aware of consciously. Young black men are not more prone to violent crime, and all Muslims are not all terrorists. But all young men in certain situations might make the wrong, and ultimately tragic decisions.

If you’re going to write, write well. If you want to write about characters and environments that are not a part of you or your identity, do your research. Respect your findings and remember there are real-world implications to your mistakes. Smith acknowledges that there may be mistakes in White Teeth, but ultimately, it’s a work of fiction. Her writing doesn’t come across as ignorant. But real. Don’t write what you know. Write what needs to be written. Write fairly, and leave the bigotry to someone else: Dead Nazi’s.


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