Thursday, 24 January 2008

Write about what you know - why?


I’m trying to get ahead of the game at the moment and sort out a few talks which I’m giving in the next couple of weeks. Since one is at the opening of a new Library, part of the talk is going to be about the research aspect of writing historical (ok, split time) novels.

And, though I was a bit worried, turns out there’s quite a lot to say, both about the precise research necessary for Testament (masonry, carpentry, building techniques, everyday life (that’s a ‘how long is a piece of string?’ one) medieval universities, the medieval church and its relation to medieval universities, Lollardy… OK, I’m going to stop now before I give the impression that the book is some kind of erudite tome) and about the research process itself.

When I did the bulk of the research for Testament the internet was not the massive, enormous, humungous, information-loaded thing it is now. It was little, it was weedy, it had very little stuff on it. It was twelve years ago. So, I relied on books. Remember them? Sorry… got carried away there on the whole cyber-thing. Of course the people who read this blog remember books, that’s why you’re here…
It’s been a stressful day…

Where was I? Oh yes, doing research out of books. Because I didn’t really have much of a feel for the kind of books I needed to read (I’m not a historian – I did English at university) I just got hold of a couple of medieval social history books, some very general guides (such as you can pick up from English Heritage or National Trust properties) on masonry and carpentry and followed footnotes and bibliographies to more detailed and relevant texts. Thank goodness for inter-library loan. Without that, Testament would have to have waited a few years.

But what was really interesting to me, when I was actually doing the research, was how it drove the story. Things which I had as part of the original plot line proved not to be possible, given the historical constraints of the time; things I found out during my research suggested new plotlines to develop. It was the total antithesis of ‘write about what you know’.

And, to be honest, how boring would that be, anyway? If I wrote about what I know you’d get novels about growing up on a dairy farm in Wales in the 1970s, being an Oxford undergraduate in the early 1980s or being a speech and language therapist. Not exactly the territory Testament covers.

I’m reading, admiring and liking (my gold standard) David Isaak’s Shock and Awe at the moment – I think it’ll be my weekend review – and unless he’s led a very chequered life as an FBI agent, a member of a slightly dodgy American militia and a mercenary (or ‘merk’ as the book would have it) then I don’t think he’s writing about what he know, either. Certainly his jacket-biog would suggest otherwise.

So where did this injunction to write about what you know come from? Surely the whole point of being a fiction writer is that you use your imagination? I don’t know what it was like to live in the fourteenth century – if anybody came back from the fourteenth century and read Testament they’d probably die laughing, always assuming that somebody had taught them how to read modern English beforehand, obviously. But it doesn’t have to convince anybody from the fourteenth century, it only has to convince twenty-first century readers and, if I’ve done my research well, that’s what it will do. But to tell me whether I’ve succeeded, I’m afraid you’re going to have to read the book!

4 comments:

Akasha Savage said...

Oooh yes! You've succeeded! I was amazed at all the little details you put in that made the story so convincing.

Alis said...

Thanks Akasha!

Tim Stretton said...

Of all the idiotic pieces of advice given to would-be writers, "write about what you know" has to be at the top of the list. In most cases it would be unutterably tedious for both writer and reader. What's wrong with "write about what interests you" as the central piece of advice instead? If it interests the writer, it has at least a fighting chance of interesting the reader too...

KAREN CLARKE said...

I suppose in general, writing about what you know can lend a greater authenticity to your writing, but it doesn't necessarily make it interesting!

If I only wrote what I knew, my writing would be very dull indeed! Part of the fun, I think, is in researching, and learning about something you're interested in, and conveying that to your readers. I don't suppose anyone's going to rush off and check details anyway, as long as it sounds convincing and there aren't any glaring errors :)