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Write About What You Know


WritersServices Factsheet  2 by Michael Legat

Factsheet index

Many tutors of Creative Writing advise their students to ‘write about what you know’. Is this sound advice? Yes, and no. It is obvious that to write non-fiction it must be on a subject that you know so well that you can be authoritative.If you are really knowledgeable about your subject you will probably know what books on it have already been published. If you have something new to say or a different angle on it, your book will stand a good chance of being published.

As for fiction:

Writing about what you know may provide you with all the background that you need and, indeed, a plot and characters and dialogue. Even if you feel that your knowledge is limited and dull, it is possible, with a little imagination, to inject enough conflict and tension into a narrative which might otherwise be considered flat and uninteresting.

On the other hand, if you write only about what you know, even with that dash of imagination added, that will not really stretch you. Writing about what you don’t know can lead you into exciting territory. You might consider that it will take you out of your depth, but the more often you experiment with new themes and backgrounds and plots, the more your powers of invention will increase.

In terms of factual material, what you know can always be increased by research.

In any case, you know more than you may think. You have within you the seeds of all humanity, thanks to which you have a great deal in common with any other human being, especially in your emotions and instincts, however different your life-styles. There are great resources within you. If you are a woman you think like a woman and can create female characters, but are hesitant when it comes to the characters who are men. However, gender is not absolute and you will be able to call upon that portion of your psyche which is male when you want to create a male character. And of course vice versa.

What about creating characters who are totally different in every conceivable way from yourself? Don’t worry. Deep inside the sweetest, kindest old lady is a ruthless murderer, and equally Genghis Khan may have been very fond of his mother. We usually keep these aberrations so carefully hidden that you may not be aware that they are there, but you will find that when you need them it is not difficult to take them out of the closet.

In any case, it is unwise to use what you know when painting portraits of your relatives, friends and acquaintances as characters in your story. The more accurately you describe them the more chance there is that they will take over and change the whole essence of the book you wanted to write. Make up your own characters, using a little from this person, and a little from that, and probably many facets of your own personality. You will then be able to control the development of the relationships within the novel. Besides, your detailed depiction of people you know might lead you into a  libel action or at least the breaking of a friendship.

Try the advice of E.M.Forster, who said that a writer should let a bucket down into the subconscious. The writer would almost certainly be astonished, he said, by what the bucket contained when it was hauled up. Its contents can contain plenty of material for a novelist.

If you are writing a story with a background of your own work experience, beware of putting in too much information. Use only that part of the background which is necessary for the reader to understand its effect on your characters.

See Writing for Pleasure

© Michael Legat 2001