Write What You Know: Myth or Words to live by?
One of the great exhortations of writing is to write what you know.
This poses a problem for many people particularly when thinking about writing glamorous locations or about careers they have never had or times they have never visited. After all life is one of the best forms of training a fiction writer can have. How can you write if you have no direct experience of a place, character or fill in the blank?
Actually writing historical is all about writing something where you can only have researched. Historicals take place in a specific time, while contemporaries take place in the eternal present. So while life can add a richness and depth to your writing, it is not the only thing. You do not need to have directly experienced something to know it.
Write what you know simply means make sure you have done the research so you can create a vivid and believable world. Ultimately, it is about getting the reader to suspend her disbelief. It is the little details that you get wrong that will pull the reader out of the story. Get enough of them wrong and the reader stops forgiving. How many you can get wrong depends on the quality of story telling. But the problem often comes in the unknown unknowns or in the think you knows instead of the things you know you do not know. And the mistakes happen to the best of authors. For example, PD James tells the story of sending a woman up to the North East via the train but having her go out of St Pancras rather than King's Cross. The stations are next to each other in London. But one will take you a lot longer and many more changes. To this day, she is not certain why she did it. It bothered some people.
Mistakes happen but as a writer, you need to make sure the story is so compelling that the astute reader is willing to forgive and needs to keeping reading to the end because they care about the story and the characters.
Write what you know means you must first know the world of the story. But how do you get to know a world beyond your own day to day experience?
I will admit to loving to travel and I do get a lot out of actually having been to a place where my stories are set. Little connections get formed in my brain and I think the smells and the sights add a richness to the world. Also the quality of the light and how sound carries. Sold & Seduced (which comes out in North America in February Harlequin Historical Direct) is a direct result of a trip I took to Rome and staying on the Aventine -- looking at the vistas, seeing the distances and the old temples.
But there are other ways -- for example watching programmes on a place, reading books about that place, speaking to a native or someone who has visited there. For example when registering a hotel, do you have to show your passport? If you don't know, then find out. Or leave out the scene. What shots are required for entering a specific country? Why would your characters be up to date on them?
When researching a historical time period -- it is a lot of reading and discovering things like when a specific pub got its name, and was a street there in 1815? Or when did the roads improve? Or when did people actually start drinking whiskey in England? Or how did champagne taste in the Regency period? Or what happened to your clothes if you travelled third class on a steam train?
The setting is not the only thing, authors also have to research characters and their attitudes. So write what you know also means you need to know your characters intimately.
Psychology and why a character behaves in a certain way is important. Understanding the stresses and strains on a character's psyche and why they made certain life choices as ultimately the way an author creates empathy with a character is through those choices made under pressure. Why would a character be desperate to marry? And would they know what they were giving up? Why would someone who is afraid of heights be willing to climb a cliff face? And what happens to them if they succeed? Who will they put their fears to one side for and why? Human nature has not really changed in thousands of years -- the same emotions exists but the stresses and expectation society puts on that nature has changed.
Also, an author needs know if a character given their specific background would behave in a certain fashion or not. Knowing the channels someone would have to go through to achieve something is important. It is the little details that can make or break a story.
Equally important for an author as there are ALWAYS revisions is know what traits, aspects and back story the author is willing to change and what has to be there to make the story yours.
So yes, write what you know but also know what you write and why.
Michelle Styles writes for Harlequin Mills & Boon Historical. Her latest The Viking's Captive Princess is out now.