Why Not Write About What You DON'T Know? by Catherine Czerkawska

Who says witches and warlocks don't exist?
Many years ago, I was asked to judge a writing competition for local schools. I was never very sure – and neither were the schools apparently – whether the competition in question involved creative writing or factual non-fiction, but most years the subjects, set by a committee rather than by me, allowed the primary schools to be creative while demanding that the older kids were restricted to factual essays. Let’s leave aside for a moment the iniquities of restricting to non fiction those secondary pupils who might have wanted to write stories. But the younger children were at least allowed to indulge their imaginations. Supposedly.

The first year was a pleasure, albeit rather a mixed one. It was clear that either some kids were prodigies – which was possible, I suppose, but so many in such a small area? – or they had had considerable parental help. As a general rule, though, most of these beautifully constructed, highly polished efforts were lacking in imagination. Long before that person in the US banned the use of excellent words like ‘said’ these kids had got the message. People exclaimed or interjected. They bellowed and screeched. Nothing was ever simple and clear. But so much of it was as dull as the proverbial ditchwater. Duller, really. Ditchwater is generally teeming with life.

There were, however, one or two misshapen but beautiful pearls among the pebbles: little stories full of energy and imagination, stories about space-men and monsters, about dragons and unicorns, about witches and warlocks when Harry Potter was perhaps only a glimmer in J K Rowling’s fertile imagination. The handwriting may have been as erratic as the spelling but there was a vigour about these that it was impossible to fake or fault and one eight year old’s effort stood out above all the rest: imaginative, enthusiastic, engaging. I can’t now remember whether it was about monsters or pirates. Perhaps it was about monster pirates from space. All I know is, it was wonderful.

But at the prize giving, I became aware that I had chosen the wrong child. Oh, I didn’t regret it for an instant, and it was a popular choice with the audience. His mum and dad and granny and grandad and various aunties and uncles were there and it became clear that he wasn’t a child who normally won things. But the teachers didn’t look very happy and nor did the parents of the kids whose perfectly crafted efforts hadn’t reaped the expected rewards.

The following year, I was asked to judge the competition again. But this time, instead of all the entries, warts and scribbles and all, I was presented with a ‘final selection’ presumably made by the teachers: a dozen essays with very little imagination between them. I courteously declined to judge under those circumstances, and asked them to find somebody else to do it.

I’ve been thinking about all this recently, and wishing that whoever first told writers to ‘write about what they know about’ had been throttled with typewriter ribbon or possibly – since it must have been a long time ago - choked with a piece of parchment and buried at a crossroads with a quill pen through his heart.

I used to - mea culpa - give this advice myself. Then I varied it by saying ‘write what you know about but you know more than you think,’ which was better. Now, I think I’d say write what you don’t know about, but write with avid curiosity. Write to find out.  Research if you need to and then climb inside somebody else’s mind, visit other times, other places, other worlds, other lives.

Historical novelists do it all the time. I’ve never lived in 18th century Scotland unless it was in a previous life, but I’ve certainly been there. In fact I've spent years there. Those who write fantasy do it too. Has China Mieville ever 'known'  Railsea in the conventional sense – a world where water has been replaced by earth, where shipping routes have become a network of railway lines, and where strange and far from friendly creatures lurk beneath the surface? Biding their time? Well, perhaps in dreams but he sure knows how to tell us all about it. And once we've been there too, we'll never forget it.

Then there’s crime. Do all crime writers have to commit murder in order to write about what they know about? And science fiction. And adventure. All we need to know is what it is to be human. Or even, come to think of it, what it is to be not quite human, or even downright alien. We need imagination and bravery and empathy and the ability to visualise, to take the leap and lose ourselves in a world of our own creating. All you have to remember is that if you are going to build a new world, it has to work on its own terms; it has to be consistent, stick to its own rules, however strange those rules may seem. It's inconsistency not oddity that pulls readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Mieville's overlapping and mutually invisible cities in The City & The City may tie the reader's head in knots - but for me, every last word of the novel is enthralling and believable because it is entirely, mind-blowingly consistent, so even while you're enjoying the story, some part of you is admiring the brilliance of the concept as well.

Some years ago, I was attending a Scottish writers' conference where I was giving a workshop, when a novelist who was later to become a good friend, but whom I then didn’t know at all, walked off with pretty much all the prizes for fiction. I was sitting behind her and I remember in particular her winning YA novel, which, the judge told us, was about fairies. I wasn't the adjudicator, but as soon as the novel was described, as soon as some of it was read out, I could see why she had won. These were not fairies as Blyton would know them but the ancient Sithe – the ‘rebel angels’ of myth who inhabit a world parallel to ours but who can also move between the two. The books - a whole series - are imaginative, savage, sexy, exciting, and original, an evocation of worlds that seem at once familiar and surprising, often moving, always believable. The writer in question, Gillian Philip, went on to forge a very successful career. Among her many novels, the Rebel Angels series is published by Strident. If you haven’t read these, then I can recommend them, whether you’re a young adult or any kind of adult at all.  Begin with the extraordinary Firebrand, Book 1 in the series.

But whatever genre you want to write in, be bold and inventive. Write, in order to find out. Write about what obsesses you, even if you don't know much about it ... yet. Or about something you're immersed in, but want to look at from a completely different perspective.
In short, write what you want rather than what you know.
Go on. I dare you.


Mari Biella said…
Well said, Catherine. I've long hated that tired old advice about 'writing what you know' which, if followed literally, would immediately rule out all science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction. It's such a sterile, imagination-denying point of view - and, interestingly, the people who are most adamant that we should write about what we know tend, in my experience, not to be writers. 'Write about what you want' - or what you love - sounds like far better advice to me.

What counts, in my experience, is getting to know your fictional world on an imaginative level - understanding how your characters live and think and feel, seeing the world as they see it, experiencing what they experience. If that immediate, intuitive understanding is there, then the most unlikely setting can seem remarkably real and believable.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Fabulous advice Catherine. It is important to allow our imaginations to run wild. To grasp an idea and run with it, researching as often as we need to. A great post thank you
Bill Kirton said…
Writing is a way of actually finding out what you know. And what you don't. I'm with you on every point you make, Catherine. The suppressing of kids' imaginations to support the educators' consensus, the liberating nature of research, the expansion of awareness by venturing into the unknown - writing's an adventure. It reveals and frees aspects of ourselves of which we're otherwise unaware. Baudelaire wrote of 'Going to the depths of the unknown to find the new' and he knew a bit about it.
Lee said…
I'm consistently inconsistent. Does that count?
Jan Needle said…
No, Lee. It's the tobacco that counts.

(And if you don't understand that, you're not British!)

Respec' Catherine. Spot on.
madwippitt said…
Absolutely! Although writing about what you know about can be a good starting point and give a little confidence - but then you have to find the courage to step outside the comfort zone ...
Lydia Bennet said…
Good for you Catherine! And for leaving that rigged writing competition as well. Don't get me started on the racket that is many CW comps, with their high entry fees and teams of anonymous 'sifters'. I don't really know where that piece of advice about write what you know started, but I suppose it could have been revolutionary in its time - eg you CAN write about the council estate you grew up on, rather than set your book in a public school just because so many of them were - you can write about your own experience, but I wonder when it became 'ONLY write what you know' as that is obviously daft. Shakespeare as far as I know hadn't even been to Denmark, or even Scotland! As for crime, there is one famous crime writer who did commit a particularly horrific murder but most of us have to imagine them - Keating's famous series of Inspector Ghote novels was popular world-wide including in India, where it's set, but apparently Keating himself hadn't been there.
Susan Price said…
I agree too, Catherine - but have always applied the rule in a slightly bent way. I've always thought 'write about what you know' as 'use what you know to get to where you want to be.'
So, you don't have to commit murder, in order to write from a murderer's POV - but you do have to find that murderous streak in yourself and use it. You have to research and understand what the motivations of most murderers are.
You don't have to have been in fear of your life in order to write about that situation - but you do have to remember a time when you were in great fear and use it to create the scene.
In that sense, you're 'writing about what you know.'
But it is absolutely stupid and pointless to say, 'you've never been a wolf, so you can't write from a wolf's point of view' or 'you've never lived in the nineteenth century - or on Mars - so you can't write about that.
No. You start with your own experience and knowledge - and then you use your imagination!
Thanks all for such interesting comments. (Jan - you also have to be of a certain AGE to get that one, and I am!)
I agree with all of you. And yes - Susan - we do use what we know of life to imagine what it might have been like for other people, and I also think Valerie is right too - at some point, it must have been a very good idea to give people permission to write about their own backgrounds, to write from their own experience. It's sad that it seems to have been taken so literally by many emerging writers. The other pitfall that emerges - for historical writers anyway - is to judge the past by what we know of the customs and beliefs of the present. But that's a whole other can of worms!
Lydia Bennet said…
I didn't understand Jan's comment and I'm British!
Catherine, great post. My unicorn helps me out with the stuff I don't know.
Lee said…
Jan, tell that to some of my official guests in budget-challenged times. I've been known to fill a cheaper wine into a 'better' bottle. Most often -- to judge by the compliments -- it was not the 'tobacco' which counted.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
AliB said…
Excellent post, Catherine, especially as I'm joining a discussion on this soon at a local litfest - I shall come back and mine it for quotes!
I agree we can't be limited by our own experience but was thinking I might play 'devil's advocate' by listing all the authors I love whom I feel write about what they know (or even what I know, which is a big part of the pleasure of reading).
and then we can always get philosophical about the meanings of 'knowing'!
Enid Richemont said…
A brilliant post, Catherine - really enjoyed reading it. It does raise some uncomfortable questions, though, which may well pop up in my current blog.
Lots of interesting comments! Ali, I could argue that way as well if I'm honest - I know just what you mean. And it's all to do with the meaning of 'knowing' - you're right. Mieville clearly 'knows' London so well that his fantasy places based on an alternative of that city have an extraordinary reality. I hope the novel I've been working on for the last couple of years is rooted in the reality of the Ayrshire countryside I 'know' very well! But I suppose my main trouble with 'writing about what you know about' is that so many people take it in such a grimly literal way that seems to kill the joy of imagination stone dead.
Dennis Hamley said…
Only just seeen this after two days on flight mode. How true this all is. And how often hkkas that attitude ruined creative writing sessions I' ve done with kids when teachers present think they are helping?
Dennis Hamley said…
Only just seeen this after two days on flight mode. How true this all is. And how often hkkas that attitude ruined creative writing sessions I' ve done with kids when teachers present think they are helping?
Susan Price said…
I post the following on behalf of a twitter friend, Richard Whipple, who couldn't get Blogger to let him in:-

"I think of "write about what you know" (I ascribe to both Hemmingway and Charlie Parker) to be akin to method acting. Imagination still plays a part but the writer is a filter - like Piers Anthony or John Norman v feminism.*

And in those words, the same story can be told in a countless number of ways. One of the writing prompts I have heard of, which I like a lot, is to take a story someone else has written and, at some point, diverge from it. Take Ned Stark. What if he had bent the knee to the Queen? What would have happened then? That is as compelling to me as his beheading (after he bent the knee) to be honest. But to someone else, perhaps without my personal experience, it might not sound so compelling a story. I cannot help but to write about what I know because I am its filter and writing is a thought process.

But, I hope to have added to my personal knowledge after the final drafts either through deep introspection or with the help of beta readers and a library.

*I have yet to read any Xanth or Gor but from reviews I gather the result.
glitter noir said…
Nicely done, Catherine. I'll take a book based on eventual facts over one based on factual events anyday.

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