Books Magazine

Write What You Know?

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

There are many sayings about writing and almost as many clichés, the number one surely being ‘There’s a novel in everyone.’

I’m not getting into that.

This is about that other old chestnut ‘Write What You Know’ (WWYK), usually attributed to Mark Twain (although I’m happy to hear he didn’t particularly follow it).  I’ve always instinctively distrusted this advice, and when I asked other writers on Twitter for their views on WWYK, the replies were so interesting that I’ve storifyed them so you can see them in full here.  (The sub-headings in this piece are all quotes).  Clearly I’m not alone in having strong feelings about this!

The intention is not to dismiss WWYK as a principle.  For many authors it works very well even when interpreted literally, by which I mean writing about first hand experiences or drawing extensively on prior knowledge of places, subjects, cultures and so on.  It can give the author credibility as well as adding to the authenticity of the narrative.  Think John Grisham and his background as a trial lawyer, Tea Obreht’s childhood spent in war-torn former Yugoslavia (The Tiger’s Wife), Frank McCourt’s Ireland.  Any novel with a strong autobiographical element is by definition WWYK in action.

‘What’s important is to care about what you write’

I suspect many writers dislike WWYF because taken at face value it’s reductive and limiting.   Yes, there is truth and merit in it and yet it’s a huge oversimplification.   It doesn’t acknowledge the role of two very important elements alluded to repeatedly by my interlocutors – research and imagination, and I’ll come to those.   Also, what’s the definition of ‘what we know’ anyway?  It’s a lot broader than the one in the paragraph above.  Novels are never ‘about’ just one thing.  Even if it was desirable, I think it would be impossible to write a book and not bring anything you know to it.  All fiction is highly revealing of the person behind it whether consciously or not, and many wouldn’t deny it.  Novelists often speak of writing ‘from the heart’, of feeling compelled to tell a story that really matters to them.  To me that is the whole point.

Write What You Know?
My Brooklyn ‘Home’ in the Ditmas Park neighborhood

On Friday I’m going to New York for a week with my 10 year old son.  It’ll be our third visit in four years.  I had been there before I wrote my first novel (on submission), but had no connections.  I’m often asked why I decided to set the book partly in Brooklyn (and in 1976) and the answer is, I didn’t decide.  The premise came to me in London when I was sitting on a bench in Golden Square, wondering about the woman next to me.  By the time she got up and walked away, I knew it would be a story about chance, two people’s paths crossing irrevocably.  I had an idea what the British woman would be like, but I couldn’t get a sense of the other one, except that she was foreign  – until the day I went to Brooklyn.  Then I knew.

That was the start of a journey I wouldn’t have made if I’d taken the WWYK rule too seriously.  Many of the comments made by other writers for this piece resonated strongly with me.

‘All good stories are about people – the rest is good research’

The book (which some of you have read) is mostly set in London where I’ve lived for more than half my life; it involves family life with teenagers, which I do know – even the American character shares my family background in some respects and that foundation gave me the confidence to take on Brooklyn.  It wasn’t difficult – in fact it was huge fun.  Luckily New York in the 1970s is extremely well documented in film, fiction and other resources.  I set out to find the right people to talk to – a high school social worker, a retired family doctor, a nurse with an Irish Catholic background almost identical to the character, a former DA, an amazing amateur photographer whose archive goes back to the 50s – and I got on a plane to meet them and talk we did, for hours and hours.  They loved reliving those times.  After I went home, I checked hundreds of facts with them, they read drafts, checked the American English and could not have been more enthusiastic.  They became friends, and Brooklyn became a part of my life.  I think it always will be now, and I can’t wait to go back.

‘I write what I don’t know’

Whilst writing this, I’ve realised that I’m drawn to novels which required significant research by the author.  Here’s a random selection of subjects from the titles I’ve reviewed this year: the slave trade, the Great War, Baroque music, psychiatry and earth science. In our conversation at the Ham & High Literary Festival, it was fascinating to hear Jane Rusbridge describe how she researched bird behaviour, cello music and the Battle of Hastings for her second novel Rook.  I’ve been very lucky to meet some other wonderful writers at live events recently.  One of them was Tan Twan Eng, whose book The Garden of Evening Mists was my favorite of those I read from the Booker shortlist.  It came as a huge surprise to hear that prior to writing it, he knew nothing about Japanese gardens.  (He doesn’t like getting his hands dirty!)  He also spoke of a common writerly temptation – masses of research may be necessary but only a fraction of it needs to end up in the book.

‘Selling your imagination short’

Last week I was thrilled to hear Richard Ford speak at the Southbank Centre and have him sign my copy of Canada.  Everything he said was an inspiration (a view held by everyone in the audience, to judge from overheard conversations on the way out) but a few things stick in my mind, including a phrase he used several times – ‘selling your imagination short.’  This was in the context of not wanting to over-rely on what he knows because for him, writing is above all about imagination.  He told how, having little knowledge of Judaism, he consulted friends to identify an artefact the protagonist’s mother could have in the house to symbolise her Jewish ancestry, as a kind of shorthand.  They suggested the Haggadah (the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, read each year at the Passover Seder meal) and that’s what he used, without interrupting the flow of his imagination.

There’s something important we shouldn’t forget when thinking about how and why writers write, and that’s why readers read.  One of the most common reasons given for reading fiction is the desire to enter an imaginary world that is also somehow recognisable and believable.  For many writers, the wish to achieve just that is a reason for writing.  There’s more to it than what you know.  It’s also what you feel, what you’re willing to discover and what you’re capable of creating from nothing.

‘Isn’t the point of writing making things up?’

Many thanks to Emily Benet, Anne Oatley, Kristin Celms, Tony Whelpton, D E Meredith, F C Malby, Mike Menaman, Mark West, Virginia Moffatt and Dean P Johnson for your thought-provoking contributions.  You’re all very welcome to expand if you wish!

Everyone else, feel free to have your say.


No post next week, but I doubt I’ll be able to resist Tweeting from New York!


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