Saturday, 6 September 2008

Write What You Know? - Sally Nicholls

Write what you know is another one of those creative writing 'rules' everyone debates. Are you only allowed to write about plumbers if you are one? What about if you want to write about aliens? Or vikings? Or elves?

It's true that books about plumbers written by plumbers have an air of verisimilitude that's hard to fake. But if you're a plumber who hates plumbing and loves reading about racehorses, you're going to write a much better book about racehorses than you are about plumbing, because enthusiasm and interest are catching. If you're interested in a subject, then your readers will be too.

If you're interested in Vikings, write about Vikings. It might take a bit of research, but at least it'll be interesting research. And if you have an emotional connection to something, it's much easier to imagine what it feels like to be that character. I've never had a terminal illness, but I've had similar enough experiences to be able to imagine what it might feel like, with research of course. I've never been a serial killer, either, and I can't really imagine why anyone would want to be, so I suspect any book about serial killers that I wrote would be a bit unbelievable.

The best books have a bit of yourself in them. I had great difficulty imagining what it was like to be an eleven-year-old boy in 'Ways to Live Forever'. But I had no difficulty imagining why he'd want to run up down escalators.

And I had great fun doing the research.


Lucy Coats said...

Right now I'm planning a book about rain. Lots and lots and lots of rain. And more rain. Very rainy rain. In fact I may be getting somewhat obsessed with rain. It's something I'm getting to be a bit of an expert about along with several million others in Britain. But I'm not loving it, so you're right, Sally, it might not be a very good book, but it would be damp and depressing, which is how I feel today. L xx

Linda said...

It depends what you mean by the word KNOW. To me, it's a question of empathy, of imagination: the plumbery bits are just research, and the knowing bits are because I can see what this plumber would feel in this situation. Or something.
Great to meet you at the CWIG conference!

Luisa said...

Great post, Sally - and good point!

Charlie Butler said...

Love the diagram!

Anonymous said...

People say "write what you know" because writing from visceral personal experience will add authenticity--at least, that's the idea. But how visceral personal experience gets transformed into a story is a tricky thing.

It's harder to judge what people know than we sometimes think it is, and, as your post suggests, we have it in our power to alter what we know!

Sally Nicholls said...

That's very true, asakiyume. Every time I've tried to put something real into a novel, it's either ended up saying something else, or I've had to take it out because it obviously wasn't meant to be there in the first place.

The cartoon is fab, isn't it? It comes from this guy: I've set the link to another of my favourites of his, but his archive is worth exploring. He also does good facebook jokes.

Linda, you are also exactly right - I think I meant empathy when I was going on about serial killers. And congratulations on commenting! Hope to see more of you.

My editor made me take the rain out of my last book. I said I liked rain. She said it rained too much.

Anonymous said...

I'm an alien. And a Viking.

Nick Green said...

I knew you were a Viking, Bookwitch, and a witch, but an alien too? A heady mixture.

Great points, Sally. I've often felt that 'write what you know' is a poorly conceived piece of advice. It's really trying to wrap up two bits of advice in one: i) Get your facts right, but – much more importantly - ii) Write about what you feel passionately about.

I think the one true universal language is the language of emotions; and if you get those right, then your story can be about aliens, Vikings, robots, witches... or alien robot Viking witches, like Ann.

Sally Nicholls said...

You guys are all saying it much better than I did. But you're right too, Nick, emotions are key. Although as with everything, there are exceptions to that rule too.

I was an alien for a while when I lived in Japan. Actually, I was a gaijin - outsider - which sounds like it should be good practice for being an author, but actually means you wander around being confused most of the time.