That’s probably a familiar phrase to any would-be writer or to anyone who has ever been in a creative writing class. Write what you know! It is what I used to tell my high school students. It could be painful to read stories about gangsters in Detroit, written by teenagers who had never stepped outside rural Saskatchewan, Canada. I used to tell them they could write far more convincingly and entertainingly about teenagers living on the prairies. However, it would be pretty confining for writers if they really could not write about anything beyond their own narrow horizon, even if it worked very well for someone like Jane Austen. What if one lives on the prairies but wants to set a story in Detroit?
The outlook is not as gloomy as it might seem when one remembers that there are many ways of knowing. We can know something by experiencing it, by living it, or at least by living the sort of life we invent for our characters. But we can know other things from traveling and from reading and from doing research. Thank heaven for that or I would not have written more than a hundred novels and novellas, almost all of them set among the upper classes of Regency England.
When I wrote A Masked Deception, my first book, I had read all of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer as well as numerous contemporary authors who were writing the small Regencies. I had read numerous history books and had done my best to find out as much as I could about things like clothing and vehicles and food and manners and etiquette and all those important things that are not so easy to find. At least, they were not easy to find at the time. There was no internet in those days. I had grown up in Britain and still had a British “voice” even after a number of years in Canada. And so I started–in 1983, writing longhand at the kitchen table during the evenings after my school classes had been prepared and all the marking was done. I was not sure I knew enough (I’m still not sure) but I did my best and kept learning and kept correcting mistakes I had made in earlier books. If one is going to write something about which one has no direct experience, then one really ought to get it right, to make it as authentic as one possibly can. Do the homework! When I set Beyond the Sunrise in Spain and Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars, for example, I read exhaustively about every battle that had been fought and every shot that had been fired during those battles–even though the actual book used only a fraction of the knowledge.
There is another type of knowing in addition to experience and research, though, and I think perhaps it is most important of all. It is imagination, the ability to identify. It is important to know what it feels like to be inside the skin of one’s characters, to know their lives from the soul out, to know how they think and speak and behave. It is important to know what it is like to be in a certain place or in a certain situation. If the characters go to Vauxhall Gardens in London for an evening of pleasure, for example, it is important to know about the gardens, of course. It is equally important, though, to know how it feels to be there and to be able to convey that feeling to the reader. And if a character is deaf or blind or maimed or very plain or unusually beautiful, it is important to know what that feels like and what difference it makes to that particular person. Being deaf in the early 19th century, for example, meant something very different from what it means today. Most deaf mutes ended up in insane asylums. And much of this type of knowing has to come from the imagination, from that in-built ability to identify.
So–write what you know, certainly. There is no better advice for a would-be writer. But remember that knowing is a much broader thing than it seems at first glance. There is much to know, but effort has to be put into acquiring the knowledge.
I have discovered on my shelves an old (though pristine and unused) hardcover, large-print edition of my very first and long-out-of-print book, A MASKED DECEPTION. I will sign it and send it to one randomly-chosen person who leaves a comment before the end of next Tuesday, September 17. Last week’s winner was Danielle Smoot. Thank you to all who left a comment.