Write What You Know – Part 1

A few weeks ago I posted a rather tongue-in-cheek article entitle The Twelve Rules of Writing, which some of you may have read and which it was nice to see a number of people commenting upon.  For me, one of the surprising comments was that people didn’t realise it was humorously intended until they got some way through it, perhaps because there are any number of articles out there where people say this sort of thing in all seriousness.

I’m also conscious that we are in the middle of NaNoWriMo and there are lots of people focused on upping their word-count with the intention of delivering a first draft by end of month.  It seemed a good time to offer some advice and encouragement, and I thought I might try and follow the themes in the original article but address them in a more serious manner.

This is the first of those articles, which I have split into two parts, the first part covering factual accuracy and the second to cover authenticity of experience, but to remind you of the original post – here it is: ~

1. Write what you know

In order for readers to engage in what you are writing and be drawn into the story, your writing must be authentic and genuine. You must therefore write about what you already know. There’s no point in researching stuff that you don’t know about, since that will immediately appear false to your readers. Stick to safe ground and it will save you a lot of effort.
As a side-effect of this, obviously science fiction and fantasy are not proper writing as you cannot possibly know about things you only imagined in the first place.

The reason I chose this as the first rule is that it seemed to me to be one of the most common pieces of advice, frequently offered without any explanation of how to follow it.  It’s trite, but it’s also true.  The key to this particular gem is authenticity.  It’s about getting inside the experience and making it immediate and personal, but it’s also about the suspension of disbelief.

Take the following example: ~

Sherlock Holmes went to the window of 221b Baker Street and glanced at the distant face of Big Ben.  It was almost midnight.  The game was afoot! (with apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

There’s nothing wrong with this as a piece of writing.  It is spelled and punctuated correctly and, though it is brief, it encapsulates a moment.  However, twenty seconds with Google Maps will show you that from any window in a flat on Baker Street it is not possible to see the face of Big Ben – it’s in the wrong direction.  Using the iconic landmark gives us a sense of place, but it’s the wrong place, and it jars the reader out of the flow of the story.

This is an obvious example, but small things can be just as damaging. I am reminded of the character living in England who opened a tin of beetroot (which is almost always sold in jars in Britain) or Robin Hood arriving at Hastings and then riding to Nottingham in a day (not possible at the time, given the roads and the available modes of transport).  These are failures of fact and highlight the importance of research. If you are going to set a story in a location then you need to know not just the geographical layout, but also the culture, the smell, the clothing, the road-markings – everything that would bring that place alive for someone who actually lived there.

The danger then is that you include this in your story. Having done your research in painful detail, you then walk your reader through it, item by item. We’ve all done it.  At the beginning of Sixty-One Nails, I describe Niall mentally mapping his tube journey in detail after a line closure. It’s a small thing, and I needed to know he could make the journey for the story to be realistic, but it was a mistake to include it. It is enough for the reader to know that it could be done. Now I know better.

A little later in Sixty-One Nails, there is a scene where the police take Niall back to his flat where he believes there is something waiting to get him.  The scene has been described as “creepy” and “chilling” and is one of my favourite scenes from the book. In the initial draft the police broke into the flat, trying to catch the intruder.  They worked quietly and moved quickly to surprise the suspect.

Later, though, I talked to serving police officers and walked them through the scene (thank you Steve and Rachel) and discovered that this is far from what would happen in reality. The police do not want to surprise intruders or catch them unawares. Surprised people are unpredictable and irrational, they can be violent to others or hurt themselves. When entering a premises where an intruder is suspected to be, the officers shout, “Police! We’re coming in!” to warn the intruder and let them prepare themselves psychologically for arrest. Of course, they also have someone at the back to prevent escape, but they do not surprise intruders if they can avoid it.

This changed the entire scene for me and resulted in a complete re-write of that section of the book.  The result is grittier, more realistic (despite the other-worldly aspects) and rings true for the reader. It also changed my impressions of the police and the work they do, the way they are trained and the professionalism with which they approach their job. That added to the richness of the narrative and the portrayal of their role in the story.

In general, the people I talk to when researching a book are pleased to be consulted and interested in the writing process. Often they seem gratified that someone in interested enough in what they do to get the detail right. My experience is that this is true of most professionals, so all you really need to do is ask. Generally people want to help.

So when you reach the end of your NaNo novel, don’t be afraid to go back and revisit the material with a critical eye.  Think who might have a perspective on what you’ve written.  Talk it through with people you know – you might be surprised by the response and enlightened as to the experiences of your friends and acquaintances. Be prepared to rewrite where you find inaccuracy, but treat the factual content with a light touch. Like salt, research makes a fine seasoning, but a poor main course.

In the next article I’m going to discuss the other aspect of Write What You Know – emotional authenticity and realistic experience – and how you write about something you’ve never seen, not done and haven’t known.

  1. #1 by Patrick Rose on November 12, 2010 - 4:07 pm

    Case in point would be Scott Sigler. Who’s book all are based on real science and are quite disturbing sometimes because of it. Especially the explanation of a virus that could in theory take over your mind and do all sorts of crazy stuff. He’s done them as a free podcast and the brilliant Chris Hardwick interviewed him on the Nerdist podcast.

    His argument was “If it can’t be done, then it shouldn’t be in the book”. Especially something realistic, like a helicopter, since if it isn’t right then someone will let him know and that makes him a sad person.

  2. #2 by Michele on November 12, 2010 - 11:55 am

    It’s good advice to consult people who know the stuff you’re writing about – provided you’re writing in a contemporary setting. If, like me, you’re writing an historical or a futuristic story (I’m doing both!), then it becomes rather trickier! Certainly, the futuristic setting means you really do have to “make stuff up”! Of course, you can base it on how things are done/people behave now, and extrapolate forward.

    *Makes note to self to add ‘The Road to Bedlam’ to her Xmas wishlist for the family as I thoroughly enjoyed Sixty-One Nails!

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