Opinion / Writing

Writing What You Know

When it comes to what you can write about, authors seem to have a terrifically varied opinion on the matter. Some say that you shouldn’t write about things you don’t know because your writing will seem disingenuous but others say that if you write about things you experience first hand then you can’t view it as an unbiased reader. It’s hard to tell what is best so I’m going to examine what I feel I can reasonably write about.

Can I write about being a guy?

For example, I am a female, English, middle class, white, 20-something only child. Does this restrict my writing to only from the perspective of similar characters? The very idea seems incredibly restrictive. I understand what being a teenager and child was like, so I can write from those age groups with personal knowledge but the age of forty is something I can’t even grasp so writing from a first person perspective would be difficult to do properly. I assume that I can write about sibling relationships, though I have none myself, through observation of friends and relations but there are some relationships I’ll never understand. For example, The Wind Singer was one of my favourite books as a child, featuring twin protagonists but my friend (who is a twin herself) disliked the book because she said it was a poor representation of that relationship. This leads me to think that there is always room for error when it comes to writing about relationships not many people get to experience.

Can I write about the 30’s?

There are many kinds of fiction that deal with things we can’t know and experience, historical fiction being an obvious example. What makes a story seem genuine is if there is enough research to create an accurate world and enough human empathy to have an idea about how people would act in that context. I don’t need to be Christian to know that people were, by and large, Christian during the Tudor period and I can do research into what that meant to society. What would be arguable is if (as an atheist) I could give an accurate depiction of faith without accidentally bringing in my own views but that doesn’t mean that I can’t try.

Whilst our experiences make us unique, we all understand empathy and most of us have a good grasp on human interaction. We inherently know if dialogue is fake sounding, if thought patterns seem unrealistic and if characters do something that seems against the nature of where they are (e.g. a Tudor pauper obsessed with cleaning). We all have a basic understanding and we can enquire and investigate to deepen our knowledge of what our characters would do and say.

Another issue would be whether including our experiences in our novels and stories cheapens them both. My grandmother recently passed away, who I was incredibly close to, and I wrote down my experiences of mourning as I have a character who has just lost a sister. While those are totally different relationships, I felt that my personal experience of grief would help with my writing but it did feel like I was cannibalising my own life. I don’t want to put everything about me into my work, I want to know enough about my characters for them to do the acting themselves.

In the end, I think we shouldn’t restrict ourselves because some author said that they can or can’t write about things they don’t know. Every writer is different and we all have different strengths. If you can perfectly represent a life similar to the one you’re experiencing and make it enjoyable to a reader then great! And the same thing goes for writers to can jump into the fantastic and write about other cultures and experiences they may never see. Nothing matters and you should never hold yourself back so long as you can successfully bring your reader into that experience as well.

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2 thoughts on “Writing What You Know

  1. I think part of writing is imagination…but even a completely imaginary world has elements from my world in it, if that makes sense. I guess it's my view of things that comes through…but how boring would it be if I limited all my books to only things that had happened to me and things I knew how to do?!

  2. We ALL write what we don't know. ALL OF US – unless we're writing a memoir, and even then people seem to vary from the truth ;DI think as long as we stay true to our character, and our character's reactions, we're okay.

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