Don’t Write What You Know

Write what you love! If you can do both in one story then nice one. It seems that writers are often counselled to pick subjects they have personal experience of. This is sound advice, because when the going gets tough (and it does) being able to fall back on situations you’ve actually been in or have knowledge of can be the difference between make or break. It’s also generally accepted that covering a topic you have an intimate understanding of will shine through in your writing and make it all the stronger.

All well and good, but here’s the conundrum – what if you really want to write about something that isn’t “what you know.” Now, a scientist will be well placed to add loads of delicious titbits to his sci-fi novel, but even NASA’s brightest couldn’t claim that exploring the fauna of an alien planet is a topic they have personal experience of. There are many, many novels, probably a majority, where it’s just not possible that the authors “wrote what they know.”

I was struck by this fact yesterday as I dug into the last 10,000 words of my current project, a historical fiction piece carrying the provisional title Covenanted. At long last, I’d reached the book’s one and only battle scene (the 1639 clash at Aberdeen’s Brig O’ Dee in case you were wondering, and I know you weren’t but that doesn’t matter. Spread the history love!). Now, I’ve never served and I’ve never time-travelled, so for me to claim I had any kind of experience in 17th century warfare would be a tad facetious. And all the research in the world doesn’t make up for first-hand knowledge, does it?

But I wasn’t in the slightest bit worried as I ploughed into the Covenanter’s bloody storming of the bridge yesterday, for the simple reason that I was writing what I love. I grew up on the novels of Bernard Cornwell and Dan Abnett, on the mythical battles of King Arthur, and on the stories of my own ex-Army father. Writing combat action scenes is just about in my blood. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t there – if it was pacey, punchy and a bit gritty, I knew I’d nailed the spirit of the thing.

Which brings me onto the salient point of this post. The research doesn’t matter. The knowledge doesn’t matter. The writing matters. That’s why you’re a WRITER. Get that right and you’ve done enough. Focus on telling the story and don’t worry about which way the wind was really blowing on the day, unless that’s part of the story! Write what you know but, when in doubt, always write what you love.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Don’t Write What You Know

  1. Quick thankyou for the like on my blog post.

    We have something in common concerning this post on writing. I’m a big fan of Covenanting history and the Killing Times.

    In fact, I come from a part of the Lowlands where several outstanding
    characters did their living, preaching and dieing. Alexander Peden (Prophet Peden) lived out his life in a cave under constant threat of execution less than 8 miles from where I live.

    I’m less than a mile from the castle where Tam Dalyell’s forefather regularly locked up and hanged suspected covenanters and conventicle followers.

    Captain James Nisbett is buried in a churchyard in the centre of my nearest town.

    I’ve visited Drumclog a couple of times and tried to imagine just how men on foot could have defeated superior armed mounted dragoons.

    If you ever decide to post some tasters of your story let me know.

    Regards

    • Fascinating! I’m lucky enough to be doing the Covenanters at Uni next year (and in Edinburgh too, the place is rammed full of Covenanter history). The book I’m writing (well, editing now) is based on the life of Jenny Geddes and the start of the movement in 1638, but IF I was (somehow) successful and got to do a sequel I’d definitely want to cover the Killing Times of the 60s-80s. I’ve already had a few ideas involving the life of Richard Cameron and possibly James Renwick. Nice to find someone else interested in the subject, I consider it one of the most important times in Scotland’s history!

  2. You’ve piqued my curiousity as to why you would like a post on so called ‘Ultimate Cybernat’ Rev Stu.

    I actually feel I’ve let myself down by posting two days in a row about him – but following the way he was baiting Rangers supporters on his Twitter feed on Saturday – I felt compelled.

    I don’t even like Rangers – funnily enough..

    Today’s Tweet thread made me laugh like hell when I saw the conversation thread unfold. I hope anyone he decides to bait with his bigoted diatribe refers to today’s post.

    It’d be good if it was posted on that Unionist site which posted the link to one of my blogs.

    I just happened across another site today where a pro-independence blogger referred to Rev Stu as ‘distasteful’, ‘paranoid’ and ‘sectarian’.

    Regards

    PS: How’s the editing of the Covenanting story coming along?

  3. Greetings!

    I am hopping over from GUTGAA and thought I would visit some blogs before the fun begins! Nice to meet you…you have a lovely blog!

    Donna L Martin
    http://www.donnalmartin.com
    http://www.donasdays.blogspot.com

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