“The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish.” Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare
In my last post I argued that the old adage “Write what you know” is very bad advice for beginning writers. So what are you going to write about, if you are not just going to fictionalise your life? The answer, as you have probably guessed from the title of this post, is that you have to “write what you know” after all, but that real life only provides the raw materials. It is your skill that turns it into a story.
That story will be made up of elements from your life, things you have experienced or read or thought or felt or dreamt. It has to be, because that’s all you have to work with. However the elements need to be selected, polished, and arranged. They need to be crafted.
That process of construction is the true art of writing, and should be seen as liberating rather than frightening. You are not constricted by “what really happened.” Everything in your universe is yours to play with. Connect, conflate, and contrast the astounding and the disparate; make them into something beautiful, something that will provoke joy, sorrow and wonder.
You are a chef, creating a feast for your readers. The ingredients that make up your feast all come from your life, but they will vary in type and proportion. Some will be brief but intense, the spice in your recipe: a flash of insight, a poignant memory, a witty remark made by a friend. Others will be more substantial, giving body to your work.
It could be a job you have done, or an area of expertise, which gives you insights into a world most people know nothing about. You don’t have to be a detective, a spy or an astronaut to make this work. In What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn turned a dull job in a shopping mall into an award winning novel, in which the mall comes to symbolise the disappointments of adulthood.
For other writers, it will be a defining event of their lives, or a question central to their existence, that dominates their work. James Ellroy has spent his career coming to terms with his mother’s murder, in a series of brutal, agonised thrillers. However he is too good a writer not to balance this with other ideas; he sets his tales of serial killers and crooked cops in the context of a secret history of Los Angeles during the middle years of the twentieth century.
If your genre is historical or speculative fiction, then the relationship between your real and invented worlds becomes necessarily more indirect. Historical fiction leans more heavily on your reading, speculative fiction on your dreams and fantasies. However it is important that your creation has some connection with reality, or readers won’t engage with it. You may never have been a Roman legionary patrolling Hadrian’s Wall, but you probably know what it is like to be cold, and weary, and bored, and far from home. You need to bring relevant experiences from your own life to your imagined world, to bring it to life for others.
Your characters, too, will draw on the people you have known, and on your own personality. However, I have warned before about the dangers of basing characters too closely on friends and family. It is better to take traits, mannerisms and quirks from real people, and blend them with invented details. Somewhere in the mix your characters need to come alive, to develop at least the illusion of independent existence. I’ll be writing about this process in a future post.
Above all, the story of your novel must be yours to tell. By this I mean that whatever your story is, it must connect to something deep within you. You need to care passionately about it, to feel intensely for the characters and their problems. This is an importance source of the fuel that will keep you going.
Of course your story will be inspired by other stories you have heard and read. This is unavoidable, and not a bad thing. There is a theory that there are only seven basic stories in the world anyway. However you need to make sure that you have brought enough of yourself to make it truly yours. If your story can be summed up by comparing it to somebody elses, but with a single twist- e.g., “like Twilight but with zombies instead of vampires”- then it probably needs more work.
Perhaps it is time to retire the phrase “Write what you know”. Perhaps it should perhaps be replaced by “write what you feel passionate about.” Your life experience is your launch pad, but if your passion takes you into unknown territory, then do some research, use some imagination. If your novel isn’t an adventure for you, how can you expect it to thrill your readers?