Write what you know . . . or maybe not?

All contemporary fiction writers will have heard the saying, ‘write what you know’ at some point in their writing life. It always makes an appearance in the Top 10 writing tips for aspiring authors but it’s a piece of advice that I think can be quite dangerous. I think it straightaway puts up limits as to what you can and can’t write about and here’s why:

Obviously nothing beats firsthand experience, if you yourself have experienced a situation that you are writing about, your feelings at having gone through it will ring true with the reader. Or if you once lived in the location where your book is set, your writing will definitely have an authenticity that you just can’t beat. But what happens if you are writing a second, third or even fourth book? You may be able to base your first book solely on your experience but unless you have had a colourful and exciting life, the chances are that you will run out of material pretty quickly.

This is where research comes in. Research, if it is done properly, can help you colour in the bits that you don’t know. Of course nowadays we’re very lucky to have the Internet. You can find so much information online – historical archives, newspapers, medical reports, as well as people’s firsthand experiences. The author JoJo Moyes talks about using chat forums for people with spinal injuries to research her brilliant novel ‘Me Before You’.

Of course there will always be some things that you can’t find online. When it came to researching my fourth novel ‘My Sister’s Child’, I knew I wanted to tackle the thorny issues surrounding modern reproductive techniques namely egg donation. The book tells the story of two sisters Jo and Isla and the resulting fallout, which occurs after Isla donates her eggs to help her sister Jo conceive a baby. The main difficulty I had was that egg donation especially between two sisters, is obviously a deeply private and often painful matter for the individuals involved so there wasn’t a huge level of information available online. Added to that, at the time of writing, the legislation in Ireland in relation to donor-assisted conception was in the process of being changed. So to ensure that the storyline accurately reflected current treatments, once I had carried out a basic level of research myself, I devised a medical questionnaire and contacted David Walsh of the SIMS clinic (an Irish fertility clinic) who very kindly answered my questions. In my experience if you can’t find what you are looking for online, there are plenty of experts out there who are delighted to help you out if you need a firsthand account or advice on something (especially if you promise them a mention in the acknowledgements!).

As a writer you should also be drawing on your feelings to add depth to your story – you may not know how it feels to come home to find your husband in bed with someone else (I hope!) but I bet you have probably experienced an intense anger at some point in your life. So even if you haven’t direct experience of a situation, just like an actor getting into character for a film, these are types of feelings that you need to call on to help put you in the shoes of your characters.

I think the ‘write what you know’ rule belongs to a different time, when research was slow and tedious. Nowadays writers have so many more avenues open to them to get information for their stories. There are plenty of ways to fill in the blanks when you get stuck so don’t put barriers in your way before you even begin and anyway, isn’t the point of writing fiction that you have to be able to make it up?

 

This post is brought to you by Caroline Finnerty.

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2 thoughts on “Write what you know . . . or maybe not?

  1. Spot on. I’m currently writing about fishermen in 1950s Iceland, none of which is within my direct experience, to say the least. But as a writer you can (indeed have to) transpose emotions which you have experienced directly in different circumstances. I think we have to start from the assumption that the human condition is shared, by and large. Research can then unlock authenticity even in alien worlds. Research also gives you an excuse for really interesting trips and encounters!

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