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Books, Features, My Novel

Write What You Know?

There are many sayings about writing and almost as many clichés, the number one surely being ‘There’s a novel in everyone.’

I’m not getting into that.

This is about that other old chestnut ‘Write What You Know’ (WWYK), usually attributed to Mark Twain (although I’m happy to hear he didn’t particularly follow it).  I’ve always instinctively distrusted this advice, and when I asked other writers on Twitter for their views on WWYK, the replies were so interesting that I’ve storifyed them so you can see them in full here.  (The sub-headings in this piece are all quotes).  Clearly I’m not alone in having strong feelings about this!

The intention is not to dismiss WWYK as a principle.  For many authors it works very well even when interpreted literally, by which I mean writing about first hand experiences or drawing extensively on prior knowledge of places, subjects, cultures and so on.  It can give the author credibility as well as adding to the authenticity of the narrative.  Think John Grisham and his background as a trial lawyer, Tea Obreht’s childhood spent in war-torn former Yugoslavia (The Tiger’s Wife), Frank McCourt’s Ireland.  Any novel with a strong autobiographical element is by definition WWYK in action.

‘What’s important is to care about what you write’

I suspect many writers dislike WWYK because taken at face value it’s reductive and limiting.   Yes, there is truth and merit in it and yet it’s a huge oversimplification.   It doesn’t acknowledge the role of two very important elements alluded to repeatedly by my interlocutors – research and imagination, and I’ll come to those.   Also, what’s the definition of ‘what we know’ anyway?  It’s a lot broader than the one in the paragraph above.  Novels are never ‘about’ just one thing.  Even if it was desirable, I think it would be impossible to write a book and not bring anything you know to it.  All fiction is highly revealing of the person behind it whether consciously or not, and many wouldn’t deny it.  Novelists often speak of writing ‘from the heart’, of feeling compelled to tell a story that really matters to them.  To me that is the whole point.

My Brooklyn ‘Home’ in the Ditmas Park neighborhood

On Friday I’m going to New York for a week with my 10 year old son.  It’ll be our third visit in four years.  I had been there before I wrote my first novel (on submission), but had no connections.  I’m often asked why I decided to set the book partly in Brooklyn (and in 1976) and the answer is, I didn’t decide.  The premise came to me in London when I was sitting on a bench in Golden Square, wondering about the woman next to me.  By the time she got up and walked away, I knew it would be a story about chance, two people’s paths crossing irrevocably.  I had an idea what the British woman would be like, but I couldn’t get a sense of the other one, except that she was foreign  – until the day I went to Brooklyn.  Then I knew.

That was the start of a journey I wouldn’t have made if I’d taken the WWYK rule too seriously.  Many of the comments made by other writers for this piece resonated strongly with me.

‘All good stories are about people – the rest is good research’

The book (which some of you have read) is mostly set in London where I’ve lived for more than half my life; it involves family life with teenagers, which I do know – even the American character shares my family background in some respects and that foundation gave me the confidence to take on Brooklyn.  It wasn’t difficult – in fact it was great fun.  Luckily New York in the 1970s is extremely well documented in film, fiction and other resources.  I set out to find the right people to talk to – a high school social worker, a retired family doctor, a nurse with an Irish Catholic background almost identical to the character, a former DA, an amazing amateur photographer whose archive goes back to the 50s – and I got on a plane to meet them and talk we did, for hours and hours.  They loved reliving those times.  After I went home, I checked hundreds of facts with them, they read drafts, checked the American English and could not have been more enthusiastic.  They became friends, and Brooklyn became a part of my life.  I think it always will be now, and I can’t wait to go back.

‘I write what I don’t know’

Whilst writing this, I’ve realised that I’m drawn to novels which required significant research by the author.  Here’s a random selection of subjects from the titles I’ve reviewed this year: the slave trade, the Great War, Baroque music, psychiatry and earth science. In our conversation at the Ham & High Literary Festival, it was fascinating to hear Jane Rusbridge describe how she researched bird behaviour, cello music and the Battle of Hastings for her second novel Rook.  I’ve been very lucky to meet some other wonderful writers at live events recently.  One of them was Tan Twan Eng, whose book The Garden of Evening Mists was my favourite of those I read from the Booker shortlist.  It came as a surprise to hear that prior to writing it, he knew nothing about Japanese gardens.  (He doesn’t like getting his hands dirty!)  He also spoke of a common writerly temptation – masses of research may be necessary but only a fraction of it needs to end up in the book.

‘Selling your imagination short’

Last week I was thrilled to hear Richard Ford speak at the Southbank Centre and have him sign my copy of Canada.  Everything he said was an inspiration (a view held by everyone in the audience, to judge from overheard conversations on the way out) but a few things stick in my mind, including a phrase he used several times – ‘selling your imagination short.’  This was in the context of not wanting to over-rely on what he knows because for him, writing is above all about imagination.  He told how, having little knowledge of Judaism, he consulted friends to identify an artefact the protagonist’s mother could have in the house to symbolise her Jewish ancestry, as a kind of shorthand.  They suggested the Haggadah (the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, read each year at the Passover Seder meal) and that’s what he used, without interrupting the flow of his imagination.

There’s something important we shouldn’t forget when thinking about how and why writers write, and that’s why readers read.  One of the most common reasons given for reading fiction is the desire to enter an imaginary world that is also somehow recognisable and believable.  For many writers, the wish to achieve just that is a reason for writing.  There’s more to it than what you know.  It’s also what you feel, what you’re willing to discover and what you’re capable of creating from nothing.

‘Isn’t the point of writing making things up?’

Many thanks to Emily Benet, Anne Oatley, Kristin Celms, Tony Whelpton, D E Meredith, F C Malby, Mike Menaman, Mark West, Virginia Moffatt and Dean P Johnson for your thought-provoking contributions.  You’re all very welcome to expand if you wish!

Everyone else, feel free to have your say.


No post next week, but I doubt I’ll be able to resist Tweeting from New York!


About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


15 thoughts on “Write What You Know?

  1. Great post, Isabel.
    I read an interview with Emma Donoghue over the weekend. What struck me was the way she spoke about writing as being her way of giving a voice to all the silenced women. In light of current events that seems more important than ever. And you can’t do that without researching and using your imagination.

    Posted by carmenhaselup | October 24, 2012, 18:32
  2. Hi Isabel, Great post – I was happy to contribute my small comment pre-post, as my opinion on this topic has changed over the years. I’ve realized that while we may not know everything about the facts or specifics surrounding a particular situation when we write, we are always tapping into our reaction to that situation. And though individuals may react differently to the same situation, with different emotions, we all share these emotions in various contexts. Emotion is what we always use when we’re writing, and it’s what readers in large part respond to.

    Posted by Kristin | October 25, 2012, 11:47
    • Glad you wanted to chip in on this topic Kristin. I think the emotion in writing plays a huge part in creating that ‘recognisable’ world that many readers want to inhabit. It’s because there can be no novels without emotion that I believe we bring more than we think we know to anything we write.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 25, 2012, 18:35
  3. V interesting post. I’ve always found WWYK to be very useful to me. When I was a student and I was taught this, at first I thought it would be limiting because I didn’t think my life was very interesting, or because I was young I thought I didn’t really know much. But then after a while I realised that my life was only familiar to me. No one was better equipped than me to write a story about teenage girls from a working class port town, for example. And I did write that, and even though it’s shelved for now I know I couldn’t possibly have written anything else for my first go at a novel.

    I dunno if I’m a good enough writer yet to stray far from WWYK. Right now I’m writing something about a girl who grows up in a windmill, and even though I never did that, and it’s set in a fictional town, it’s based on real places I’ve been and people I’ve met.

    A few months ago I tried to plan a whole novel based in California, and even though I’ve been there a handful of times I just couldn’t make it work. It took too long to write anything, I just couldn’t capture the atmosphere of it in my head and I was self-censoring because I was too scared of getting it ‘wrong’.

    So for me, the windmill thing is a good balance. It’s familiar enough and yet different enough. I have a real respect for people that write a novel based on something they didn’t know anything about before they started working on the novel. It must take forever to feel confident enough to write about an era / job / culture that’s completely new to you.

    Posted by cariadmartin | October 25, 2012, 17:00
    • A very thought-provoking comment, thank you Cariad. Really interesting to hear from a much younger writer. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to write anything at all when I was in my 20s, and my 30s were overwhelmed with bringing up little children, so I have a lot of respect for you having the resources to do it although your position doesn’t surprise me. I would never set an entire novel somewhere unfamiliar, that is just making life way too hard! I really hope for you that windmills are the new literary Lighthouses – you could really be onto something with this new one!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 25, 2012, 18:39
  4. The greatest and arguably most successful sinner against WWYK was of course Karl May. See e.g.http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/shortcuts/2012/apr/22/karl-may-german-writer. As a child I devoured his adventure stories of the American wild west, with the memorable characters of Winnnetou and Old Shatterhand, and of the orient with Kara Ben Nemschi, all in atrociously bad Dutch translations and in antiquated, obsolete spelling. Some of the books had been cut in half by a stationer’s shop which also ran a small commercial lending library, and were rebound in 2 separate volumes, covered in brown paper, to increase lending revenue. The split was made in completely arbitrary places, sometimes ending the first volume in mid-sentence. I imagine that it is OK not to WWYK as long as you do it with aplomb and you make sure that your target readers do not know more about your chosen subject area and settings than you do when you aim at an appearance of realism. It worked fine for Karl May (in an era when very few people travelled any distance) and works, for example, by definition for science fiction. Apart from all that, as a reader I want to suspend disbelief – I’ll even accept the impossible, as long as it is done with craftsmanship and conviction. I find fiction which by and large sticks to to a world which I also know fairly closely from personal experience, so that I know it when the writer is making it up and when he/she isn’t, often too claustrophobic. What is better, a big lie or a feeble truth?

    To change direction a bit, the sentence

    “Novelists often speak of writing ‘from the heart’, of feeling compelled to tell a story that really matters to them. To me that is the whole point.”

    seems problematic to me. At face value, it looks either like a form of propaganda (to sell an idea) or like 19th century romanticism, as in: the artist (musician, actor, writer, etc) bares the innermost suffering of his/her soul on stage and for the audience. As a member of the audience, or as a reader, I would rather they didn’t. All good art is at least 90% laboriously aquired technique, deployed to manipulate the readers/audience – who knowingly pay good money for this. Some of the artist’s private feelings can be relevant and contribute to the work of art and others are a distraction and diminish the quality of the work or performance. I don’t think that you can be much of an artist if you are not able to separate your private life and feelings from the work you are creating/performing – the point is that you are creating something which is outside yourself, something which transcends what you are in your private life and only technique (including research) can make this possible at all. I will never be a novelist, but I rather suspect that without a lot of experience and technique, “writing from the heart” will usually fail and not ring true. As a concert pianist once put it, spontaneity in a performance only becomes a possibility after a close analysis of the score and the extremely unnatural activity of many, many hours of painstaking and detailed practice. The same applies even more to improvised music such as jazz.

    Posted by Tom Voute | October 26, 2012, 21:21
    • Hi Tom, thanks for your comment, it was interesting hearing about your experience of reading Karl May as a child.

      Re Writing from the heart, let’s have that discussion in person sometime, it’s a bit difficult to do online, but from what you wrote I think you have taken a different interpretation of that phrase from the one writers usually intend. Writing from the heart, for me at least, is about having a passionate connection with the story you are trying to tell (as opposed to, say, churning out what the market wants in a formulaic way without caring what you’re doing). All writers draw on their own emotions and experience to an extent as I said, but this expression doesn’t imply dependence on your own personal life or feelings. I agree with you that this would be unlikely to produce anything of much interest to anyone else.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 29, 2012, 01:05


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