Write what you know, or know what you write?
When I was 14, my English teacher asked everyone in the class to write a novel.
A novel of about 3000 words, that is. This instruction was followed by the perennial advice ‘write what you know.’ I took this literally, picked up my pen, and got completely stuck.
I had always liked writing imaginative stories – such as the tiny goldfish determined to rule the fish tank, and the unicorn warning the world to put an end to war - but suddenly I felt that I’d been doing it wrong, and that all I was allowed to write about was my own bog-standard life.
If I invented a fantastical plot for this ‘novel,’ surely the teacher would say I was lying. If I gave my heroine a dismal home life, would social workers turn up to arrest my parents? If a character fell in love, would everyone laugh and try to work out which boy I was writing about? So, to complete the assignment, I just wrote an account of my life to date – and got an extremely high mark. It was clear that imagination wasn’t the done thing, and for a while I became self-conscious about attempting fiction at all.
Realising the true meaning of ‘write what you know’ was never a lightbulb moment – it just became obvious as I got older that authors couldn’t really have visited other planets, committed murders or found a caveman living at the tip. They hadn’t made carbon copies of their own experiences, but had extrapolated those experiences to give authenticity to fictional events. If your character gets chased by a tiger, it doesn’t mean you broke into the safari park and held up a sign saying ‘Eat me’ – you just knew what it felt like to be terrified, and could build on that feeling to imagine the rest.
So when I finally got on with a proper novel, rather than write what I knew, I decided what I wanted to write and then make sure I knew about it.
A lot of this was from formal research, but there were also seemingly unrelated experiences that proved useful… and that’s where mud and gruesomeness come in!
Recently I mentioned on a writers’ forum that there always seems to be lots of mud in my writing – this is because I have three horses and so spend much of my life up to my knees in the kind of stuff that coated the 18th-century roads.
I know exactly what the ground will look like in any given weather conditions at any time of year, I notice tiny differences in the smell of the earth, I know what it’s like to fall over and go squelch, and how difficult it is to keep mud out of the house. Having mud as a part of everyday life makes it easy to appreciate the normality – and problems – of the 18th-century level of dirt.
I said there was a connection between mud and gruesomeness – the connection is equine. Horses get things wrong with them. They get skin conditions, hoof infections, wounds, colic – people think owning a horse is posh, but it’s not for the squeamish.
During my final edit of Kill-Grief, I was looking after a horse with an abscess in her jaw. Three times a day for six months, I had to flush the pus out – at a field where there was no electricity or hot water, and nowhere to place anything down without it getting filthy. As it wouldn’t respond to antibiotics, I had first-hand experience of just how interminably long something can take to heal, and how difficult a wound is to manage in a dirty environment – no wonder so many 18th-century patients had to stay in hospital for months. An ongoing wound plays an important part in the book, and as revolting as it may sound, it was handy to have some real-life pus to look at! (The horse is fine now, if you were wondering.)
So to conclude this rather long post, I’m glad I realised that writing ‘what you know’ doesn’t mean sticking to the reality of an average life. There are any number of ways in which experiences and knowledge can transform into fiction – I just wish that teacher had told me.
It’s now the end of my blogging week, and I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m even tempted to set up a permanent blog of my own. I wonder how long it would take before I ran of things to say and resorted to linking to funny YouTube videos? I’ll try to convince myself out of it, but for now it’s time to hand over to Andrew Sharp. Andrew’s modern history novel, ‘The Ghosts of Eden,’ continues the medical theme – I’m looking forward to hearing about it, and even more to reading it when it comes out next year.
Thanks for reading and commenting! Until next time…