Write What You Know – Part 2

Continuing my series of posts on my tongue-in-cheek article, the Twelve Rules of Writing and in support of those people participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo, this is the second on the subject of Rule 1 – Write What You Know.

In my previous post, I discussed the need for research and why using what you know can help you establish a vivid and believable setting for your story, together with the dangers of too much detail and data dumping. This is an important aspect of writing, especially in Fantasy, but it is not enough on its own. Having a believable world is only the first step in bringing a story to life.

Writing fiction is an art – it is about creating something, not reporting something. While you can include a beautifully described world with a developed ecology, an eon-spanning history, a viable economy and a vibrant culture, that does not provide a story. We’ve painted the scenery, but the play has yet to begin.

It is tempting to make a special case for Fantasy and SF. After all, these genres are specifically about creating situations that are inherently unreal, but actually this is true of most fiction. The fact that one genre explores alternate worlds and another trawls the depths of the criminal mind is looking at the same thing inside-out – we’re in another country in both cases. That one is set in the past and another in the future is simply a matter of perspective. Even in a historical novel, the writer is making things up. The one exception is perhaps Literature, where it can be more about stye and technique than about story-telling, though the best Literature is all that and more.

So what is the purpose of fiction? For me, it is encapsulated in the following quotation:

Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures – Jessamyn West (1902-84)

If you want to discover facts you should read non-fiction. History, biography, travel, science – all will increase your knowledge and perhaps your understanding of the world. If you want truth, though, you need to read fiction.  And if you want to write fiction, you need to be able to write the truth.

“Write the Truth” was what Robert McKee wrote inside my copy of Story, his seminal work on the art of screenwriting. If you don’t have a copy then buy or borrow one.  Better still, pay to go and listen to him at one of his occasional lectures. He’s irascible and cantankerous, but you learn a hell of a lot in three days.  It’s simple enough, then.  If you want to write fiction, simply tell the truth.

That’s not an easy burden, though. If you want to discover how easy it is, simply resolve to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (as they say in court) for a single day. Careful, though – if you’re wise you’ll lock yourself in a room and neither see nor speak to anyone. The truth isn’t kind or considerate, it doesn’t take prisoners and it will trash your friendships, ruin your relationships and wreck your career.  You’re going to have to tell the butcher that she has dirty fingernails, your boss that he’s greedy and selfish, your husband/wife that they’re overweight (while you’re no sylph), and your children that they’ve disappointed you. If you make it to the end of the day with your life intact, you will be very lucky indeed.

There’s a paradox here, then. I’m saying you should write the truth, but at the same time I’m telling you that if you do, it will ruin your life – the writer destroys himself. The saving grace is that while you write the truth, you make the characters up. Your characters become your proxies for the purpose of telling the story.  But if you want your characters to be full and rounded then you need to have them react in the way that real people do and for that to reveal some truth about them, or about the situation they are in, and in doing so reveal some truth about yourself.

That can mean taking yourself and your characters into some dark places, and being honest with yourself about how you feel and how you would react in that situation in order that you can transfer those feelings to your characters and say, “That’s me, how about you?”

This is what you know. This is your truth.  You know how you feel and you can imagine how you would feel if you were in that situation. How you feel makes you unique and individual, but it also connects you to everyone else.

Maybe your characters feel the same as you and react accordingly, or maybe they sneer at your reaction and go their own way. Perhaps their reaction is prompted by yours through empathy or revulsion, either is valid, or perhaps you are greeted with incomprehension. Whatever their reaction, it must be true to you and to the story you are telling.  You don’t have to explain why they react the way they do, that should come from the story and be revealed as part of that character’s development, but the reaction should be true to that character in that situation.

As an example, take the funeral scene from The Road to Bedlam. Niall is drawn into participating in a joint memorial ceremony after the tragic death of his daughter. His initial reaction is to revert to his default behaviour and throw himself into work, organising the event. This allows him to distance himself from the shock and the grief, but it doesn’t allow him to escape. It’s only when he comes to stand before the assembly and speak about his daughter that his grief hits him, suddenly and profoundly.

As a piece of writing, that scene meant visiting the idea that I might lose my own child, and how that would feel.  It was an extremely difficult piece to write and it meant treading a very fine line between sentimentality and honesty.  It was challenging both technically and emotionally.  Personally I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written, but not everyone reacts the same way to it.  For some people, the scene leaves them bemused and untouched, while others have told me that it made them cry in public. Unsurprisingly, it’s the parents who found it the most difficult to read.

So in order to write the truth successfully, you have to be able to imagine the best and the worst, then transfer that to your characters in such a way that it becomes true for your readers, connecting back to your readers through their own empathic response and delivering a direct emotional reaction in a way that feels right and true.

Or to put it more simply, write as if it were the truth, no matter how hard that might be.


  1. #1 by Evon Davis on November 18, 2010 - 9:12 pm

    I like this idea that fiction is all about getting to the truth. In fact, when I read Sixty-One Nails, one of the things that impressed me the most — aside from excellent writing and storytelling — was the idea that the fey couldn’t lie. I thought to myself, Of course! Fear leads people to lie, and though the fey have things to fear, they wouldn’t have petty, human fears. It would only weaken them. That felt profoundly true.

    I’m doing NaNoWriMo for the first time and love the way it cuts through thoughts like, “Oh what would people think if they read that?” I just pour it out, and it’s really powerful.

    By the way, when I read the scenes around Alex’s death, I was crying in public (I have a daughter about her age.) 🙁 *sniff*

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