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.