For my recent post Write What You Know? I received some great replies when I asked fellow writers what they make of this piece of advice. I was so intrigued by historical crime writer D E Meredith’s answer ‘I write what I don’t know’ that I invited her to the Literary Sofa to explain why she feels that way:
Sure, Write What You Know. But be careful if you do so.
When Isabel put this question out on Twitter, I told her I write about What I don’t know because anything else might lead to calamity. I cited losing friends, divorce, being cut from a will, accusations of slander, cold shoulders at parties, even the odd fatwa.
Ingredients for an excellent novel, I said and I was joking, of course. Well sort of joking. Something I’ve learnt since I started writing five years ago, is that tapping into personal memories for a novel isn’t always the smartest idea.
I learnt the hard way triggering a kind of delayed PTSD. I certainly had the symptoms. Vivid nightmares, an inability to concentrate, distraction, lack of focus, black moods coupled with a zealot like obsession.
Before I had kids, I did a job I loved which involved travelling to war zones. I was a press officer and spokesperson for the Red Cross, mainly based in London but every few months or so, travelling to extraordinary places at key moments in their history. Bosnia’s civil war, Kabul just before it fell to the Taliban and Rwanda during the last days of the genocide.
The adrenalin was permanently pumping in my veins and for six years, I can honestly say I’d never felt so alive. Being close to death does that to a person. But the work was arduous, scary at times, and I was confronted with harrowing images. My job was to interview people who were in a state of acute shock; people who were grieving, anguished, full of pain, anger, hate, distress. I stumbled into villages where children’s wounds were still raw and pink from the slashes of machetes. I met women who had been gang raped, old ladies whose sons had been taken to forests to be shot in the back of the head or even, crucified. And in a one place, I’ll never forget, a place called Marastoon in Afghanistan, I saw a mentally ill man, who was naked, howling, chained to a wall, like something out of Bedlam, as shells started raining down on us. We were on the front line.
My work was to write down what I saw, what I heard, to be professional, keep my head down, keep my nerve and I was good at my job. I put my armour on. I protected myself. But when I had babies, I left the aid world to get on with so-called “normal” life. But then later, much later, who knows why, I decided to write it all down.
To Write What I Know in other words, delving into painful memories, I didn’t know I had. I started tapping at the laptop like my hands were on fire, crying all the time, bewildered, lost to another world, a world I thought I’d left behind.
Nevertheless, in eight weeks I’d completed a manuscript of sorts – 100,000 words of a “fictional” novel.
The moralities of doing this, let’s leave aside for a moment. It wasn’t my tragedy. What right did I have? What justice could I do to other people’s suffering?
All I can say, is that the very process of writing saw me chip away at my armour. Word by word, and line by line. Perhaps, as writers we should embrace such a process. Strip ourselves down to the core and explore things which drain us, pain us, make us grieve – but having done it and seen where it leads, I’m not so sure.
It doesn’t mean I don’t admire those who do it well. I’ve recently read the work of Tim O’Brien, who was a vet in the Vietnam war. A giant of American literature, whose work is full of a visceral rawness, energy, poetry and absolute truth about the human condition in war. He wrote what he knew. Astonishingly, brilliantly so.
I’m not comparing myself to him – God forbid – because he’s a genius. I was just a witness to war and what it does to people, but what I have learnt is that for me, the joy of writing is about escape.
It’s about going on an adventure into the world of the imagination. Soaring free for a while. Maybe that’s what drew me to writing historical crime novels.
Before I started writing The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries (which are set in London during the 1850s and 60s), I didn’t know much about the Victorians, less still about the dawning of forensic science. The research part of novel writing was like a holiday. I had a lot of fun, going to museums, snooping around London, talking to curators, wheedling out bizarre, gory but often, delightful information. I was like a magpie, looking for glittery things.
The whole thing kicked off when I read a book by Alfred Russel Wallace. He was a contemporary of Darwin’s, who travelled to Borneo in the 1850s, collecting butterflies and beasts. His travelogue inspired me with its tales of ape hunts, Birds of Paradise, malarial visions and evolutionary theory. When I read about his epic journey, I was knocked sideways and felt compelled to write a story. The Malay Archipelago set my imagination alight, so much so that instead of doing my usual, slightly depressing work, I found myself tapping at a key board, producing what was to be the first draft of DEVOURED.
And I did it happily. Not sobbing on my laptop.
Discovering the world of Victorian Naturalists led me thinking about C19 attitudes to Science which led me to thinking about pathology and the dawn of forensics. I was writing what I didn’t know.
And loving it.
Somehow, I’d created the beginnings of my imaginary world; a world I could escape to, like Alice down a rabbit hole.
The city my characters live in is a harsh one but whilst some readers say it’s dark and disturbing, I find the material I’m dealing with utterly beguiling. I get to develop my characters against a dramatic backdrop – early forensics, bigotry, ignorance, good versus evil, the Victorian politics of class, trade, empire, social unrest, the Industrial Revolution and declining religion.
In historical terms – what’s not to love?
Of course, like any historical writer, I worry about getting my facts wrong and covering themes as wide ranging as Darwinism, Fenian politics and now, in my new novel, early neurology, there’s plenty of scope for an amateur like me to get it wrong.
But writing what I don’t know – what I must learn, discover or imagine – is something I can embrace without fear.
As to writing about things I “know”. Well, I’m not quite ready for that.
But one day? Maybe.
Many thanks to Denise for this very honest and affecting piece. Her first Hatton and Roumande mystery Devoured is already out in a beautiful hardback edition and will be published in paperback in February 2013 to coincide with the next in the series, The Devil’s Ribbon.
I’m busy reading all the contenders for my Fiction Hot Picks 2013 (12 December) – an enjoyable challenge which has already seen some novels score a place on the list and some fail to grab me. Coming next week – after all the drama of Week in New York – A Disaster, a fun Brooklyn travelogue for fellow lovers of NY or anyone planning a visit.
Denise, thank you for a moving and insightful piece. I can’t imagine how you endured having to report such suffering. No wonder it took its toll on you. I understand why you don’t want to ‘write what you know’. Interesting too that for your fiction you’ve chosen an era of scientific progress and discovery – a more hopeful time? – and to look at the roots of the forensic process, which can sometimes be used to solve such war crimes as you witnessed. Perhaps for many of us, ‘write what you know’ is just too close to home. I understand it more as ‘write what you feel’ – trying to get under a character’s skin, and convey some emotional truth. From your piece, I’m sure that’s what you do.
Thank you for lovely comment. Writing my book on Rwanda exorcised some stuff, I guess which is a good thing. My books are very dark but there is also light, a little romance and comedy in them, too. Write what you feel is great maxim for all writers.