Write what you know can be controversial (like any writing ‘rule’) but it makes sense – to me at least – if not taken to extremes.
Obviously if you’re writing non-fiction it needs to be taken literally. But what about fiction writers?
My Ian St James’ winning story, Bronwen’s Dowry, was about a journeyman shearer and his seamstress wife travelling the land, scratching a living while he dreamt of winning a music contest. Now I don’t pretend be be musical or any good at sewing and, at the time I wrote the story, I had had little hands-on experience with sheep. So what did I know that made me feel that this was my story to write?
Well, firstly, Bronwen’s Dowry is, on one level, a retelling of the Parable of the Talents. Bronwen has a gift, a talent, that she uses to the best of her ability and it yields many-fold. I am a theologian and, furthermore, that parable – encouraging everyone to realise their full potential – is my favourite. Secondly, I did actually know a little about shearing, just enough to make the story believable: for instance, I knew that, unlike many outdoor workers, shearers have very soft hands, because of the lanolin in sheep wool. A simple fact like that can make the difference between bringing readers along with you, or losing them.
Of course, Bronwen’s Dowry was a short story (albeit a long, short story). So when I wrote Silvana, which has far more detail, I needed a lot more knowledge to draw from. Fabiom is an archer, a poet, a magistrate and the somewhat reluctant owner of a silk mill. His best friend is a physician who uses a wide range of herbs. The story is set in the woods and the trees and other life there play a huge part in the story. I am not an expert in most of these subjects either. Yet I do know some things. Fabiom is an archer and not a swordsman because I know nothing about swords – how they are made, how they are used – but I do know how to shoot an arrow from a longbow and I know how a wooden bow is constructed. And so on. The details in the book are things I have a keen interest in and some, even if limited, experience of.
My advice to any beginner-writer is to compose a list of ‘What you Know’: every temporary job; every adventure or misadventure you have had; every situation you have encountered that has impacted on your life in any way; any time you have stepped outside your comfort zone; every incident that you thought noteworthy enough to share with friends after the event – if you have ever said, ‘you’ll never guess what happened to me. . . .’ then whatever that was should go on the list. So should the funniest, saddest, most embarrassing things that ever happened. And don’t stop at yourself – if you live with someone who is always regaling you with stories of their working life then you probably know enough about that to set one of your characters up in the same line of work and make it seem real. You will be surprised at how long the list will be, unless you have spent your life in a cave or are under five years old. And don’t just think about it, do actually write this list. The exercise of itself will be inspiring. I defy anyone not to come up with at least 250 entries.
(note: this is a mildly edited version of a post from a previous, now defunct, blog.)