Tuesday, 4 May 2010

'Write What You Know'... or Don't

We've all heard it at one time or another, and most of you non-writers out there will probably have come across it too: it's apparently one of the cardinal 'rules' of writing. Write what you know. Meaning, write about places you're familiar with, emotions you've experienced, ideas you are familiar with, etc.

I think there's some sense in this, but only to an extent. I think something else is far more important: writing what you love. Writing about what you love.

There may be a paradox here in that you assume that if someone loves something, they probably 'know' it already, so writing what you know is writing what you love. 

But I don't think that's necessarily true. For example, I love Italy. I know a few things about its history, and its architecture, and its art, and I'm absolutely dying to go there. But I wouldn't be able to write a novel set in Rome or Venice right now, simply because I don't know enough about it, love it though I do. Do you see?

Another example, of writing what you love that you also happen to know. I love the theatre. Immeasurably. Plays, musicals, being in the audience or backstage, I love it. But I also happen to know it pretty well. 

My father is an actor, and most of his stuff involved the stage. So, from the age of about two or three, much of my free time was spent camped backstage while my father (and often my mother too) strutted their stuff onstage, off and generally in-between. As I grew older, I became the mascot of many of the shows my dad was involved in, largely because I was always around. I knew all the lines. I would repeatedly evoke choruses of laughter from the cast and crew because I would tell my father off for forgetting or fudging a line. There's this one theatre in Bangalore where most of these things happened, and I know it back to front. My parents know everybody who works there. Still.

Over the summer, my mother, who teaches at my old school, roped me into helping out with a huge school musical. I was somehow put in charge of playing the music during the show on cue. I protested a lot, but I have to admit, I loved it. The week of the show, Mum, who was stage manager, informed me that with two light/tech and dress rehearsals and three shows on, we'd be spending a lot of time at the theatre (the very theatre mentioned above).

Mum: We might as well set up a tent.
Me: So, just like old times, then?
[we laugh]

That is my history with theatre. So, could I write about it? Easily. Do I? Yes. Does that count as 'writing what I know'? Yes. But it's also 'writing what I love', and that part's far more important. 

When you write about what you love, the passion shines through the text. It makes other people love that thing too, or at least, find the interest to be invested in it for as long as they're reading your story. I recently read Lucy Christopher's Flyaway, which revolves largely around a family, but also around a swan and swans in general. I don't mind swans, but I'm not particularly fussed about them. Yet the passion and interest in Flyaway was so clear and so lovely to read, I found myself caring very much about swans. It's such a great book.

If you've lived in London all your life, people might tell you to write about London, because you know it backwards. But you might not necessarily want to, you might not be interested in it. I think I'm expected to write about India, because that's where I'm from, and I do write about it. But only when I want to. Only when I see a story there, and not just because it's what I know.

So, should I ever write about Italy, considering I don't know it very well and have never been there? Yes, I should. Because I'm interested in it. Because I love reading about it, and seeing interpretations of it, and I love different parts of its history and art.

There's a remedy to not knowing enough about something. Research.

I think, in the end, you could write what you know, if what you know is what you love. And if what you love is what you don't know... just learn it instead.

I'd love to hear what other people think of the 'write what you know' dilemma. And while you ponder this monster of a post, I'll go back to writing TEA WITH DEATH, DESIRE AND RAGE. 700 words into Chapter Two now.


  1. I think you definitely have a point there. We can always 'combine' what we don't know with what we do know. Our senses are always going to be pretty constant - and if you have an imagination surely you can imagine what it feels like to be standing next to the fountain de trevi, right? I guess that's when it tests our skills as writers!

  2. You're so right there, Sangu. The passion and love for a subject radiate through a writer's words making the text spring into life.
    You may not know Italy well but a fascination with the country makes research a heck of a lot easier and more enjoyable.
    It's the same with business - I sell vintage clothes because I love everything about them, the history, the labels and the prints. I could make more money selling high street fashion but I'd be frustrated and bored.

  3. Hmm...
    I think it is easier to write about that which you know intimately.

    When it comes to writing fiction, you could argue that no one knows what dwarves, elves, phoogas, zombies, or ghosts are really like. But then if you analyze the way these things are written you can find that they are in often in large part extrapolated from existent things. High fantasy elves are inspired from ancient Greece. Zombies are inspired by retail shoppers (just kidding, mostly).

    So as you point out the key is partially research... Research to get the trappings for any given reality (elves, classical music, space wars, history). Research is one way of knowing something. Sometimes the only way of knowing something.

    And then, as the Allomorph pointed out, comes imagination to flesh the setting out and to create narrative in this world. I think this is a crucial part, but that might just be because it's my strong suit...

    While, surely emotion and feeling play a part, I think (just my opinion) it pertains to a different part of the creative writing process. Instead of it being a main component of how you write, I think it's more a main component to why you write.
    And when I look at bulk of literature in the world, I find that there are many excellent books that were written without love.
    Sure it's a great reason to write, but there are others that can lead to excellent fiction.

    Clearly having intimate first hand knowledge and a love of the subject matter will be great assets to have in writing... Not indispensable assets, just conveniences.

    Isn't the deciding factor writing skills? With those skills you can write fiction, stories, people, that your readers will care about even if you do not. You can paint a scene from a handful of flimsy stage props, and that scene will inflame the reader's imagination and transport them to Mars or to 1746. : j

  4. Oh, sorry!
    I forgot to attach the disclaimer:
    The above is merely the opinion of a reader...
    I'm not a writer. So, it's worth what it is worth. Cheers.

  5. Alliterative Allomorph: that's a great point, I really should have mentioned how important the imagination and writing skills are to this kind of thing, so thank you for pointing it out!

    Vix: Yes, that was exactly my point! It's hard to get engaged with something you're not personally interested in.

    Alesa: I think readers' opinions are every bit as important as writers'. After all, you're the ones who read the books we write :)

    "Isn't the deciding factor writing skills? With those skills you can write fiction, stories, people, that your readers will care about even if you do not."

    -Yep, I agree with the above, the author's writing skills are key here. But I just think that if an author isn't interested in what they're writing about, it will show and make the text less engaging.

    Just my opinion. :)