Tweet chat 28th May 2021 Write What You Know

Participants: Gerald Hornsby, Jing Edwin, Kathleen Marple Kalb, Sandy Stuckless, Maria Johnson, Karen Heenan, Gillian Harvey, Nettie Sars, Deborah Klée

Please introduce yourself by telling us what you write and why.

Maria: Hi everyone! I’m Maria from NW England. I write historical fiction (2 novels published just signed the contract for the 3rd) and also 1 fantasy novel. I love writing and can’t imagine not doing it!

Jing: I’m Jing. I write soft sci-fi and urban fantasy. I once leaned towards horror but have found that these genres suit my skills better

Deborah: Hi Jing. What is soft sci-fi? As opposed to hard? I didn’t know there was a difference.

Jing: Soft sci-fi is basically where you don’t go deep into the science side of things and focus on the story and characters. Like Star Wars can be considered soft sci-fi because it doesn’t delve deep into the how and why of their science

Karen: I’m Karen, and I’m from outside Philadelphia, PA. I write historical fiction because I like seeing the differences and similarities between eras and cultures. Spoiler: we’re more alike than not.

Kathleen: Hi! I’m Kathleen. I write series mysteries because I love long character arcs…and resolving a case in each “episode.”

Gerald: I’m Gerald from Birmingham, through East London, and now North-East Essex. I write crime and thrillers. They’re genres I understand and enjoy reading.

Sandy: Hey everyone! Sorry I’m late. I’m Sandy. I write science fiction and fantasy. Mainly because I enjoy the epic scope and worldbuilding. Also, I’m secretly a wizard.

Deborah: I am the host, Deborah. I live on the Essex coast. I write accessible lit fiction/ relationship drama, with some mystery. This is what I enjoy reading. 

What does Write What You Know mean to you? How do you interpret this and do you agree?

Maria: Leaning on your own experiences in writing. It is a useful thing (eg drawing on my own walks in the Lakes when thinking of how to describe the setting of my historical fiction). However, I don’t think it should be a hard and fast rule. Especially for fantasy!

Jing: I used to have a lot of trouble with this, but these days I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean always write from direct life experience, but rather use bits and pieces of your own experiences and memories that might help when incorporated into a scene.

Deborah: That’s how I read it too. I often think that our very first novel is a bit autobiographic as we have to get everything out before the good stuff flows.

Karen: I take it to mean write what I want to learn about or what I know to be emotionally true. I think taking that rule too literally has stopped a lot of people from writing because they don’t feel they know enough. 

Sandy: The MC in my scifi novel is a high-end car thief. Safe to say I’m not one of those, but he is human with fears, desires, ambitions, etc. That’s where I draw my ‘write what you know’ from

Kathleen: Using my own experiences to lend realism to my characters and their world. I’m not an opera singer, for example…but I use my voice in my work, so I can explain how it feels to exercise and take care of the instrument.

Deborah: As you say, it is drawing on the experiences you can bring to a situation that you may not have experienced first-hand.

Kathleen: Exactly…if everyone wrote ONLY what they literally know, we wouldn’t have Lord of the Rings…or most murder mysteries, for that matter!

Deborah: And yet an agent at a literary festival told me I couldn’t write about people trafficking as I did not have first-hand experience – even though I had worked with people who had.

Ying: That’s ridiculous? How many people actually HAVE that kind of first-hand experience?

Kathleen: All due respect to that person — and my high school English teacher — but plenty of other folks recognize the importance of imagination!

Gerald: I know that it’s changed from the “write from your own experience” that I first thought it was. I think it can be misleading. Maybe: “Understand what you’re writing” might be better, and gives more freedom?

Jing: Yes! It’s the specifics that took a while to figure out. It’s to easy to interpret it as “only write what’s happened in your life”

Sandy: *steps on soapbox* IMO, many writers misinterpret this. They think it refers to a specific skillset or job or setting. While those things do apply, for me, the ‘write what you know’ talks about specific emotion, specific experience. Heartbreak, or finding love. I can research being a mechanic or astronaut easily enough. It’s a bit harder to research the lived experience. 

Deborah: Maybe we bring a combination of both to our work?

Sandy: Oh, for sure. I believe we have to draw from as many sources as possible to paint the whole picture. Even within a certain demographic, say, mechanic, for example. My experience as one will be different than another one. Those differences are where the gold lies.

Would you consider writing about a character who is in the same line of work that you are or have been in the past? If not – why not?

Jing: I have always worked office jobs, so I usually have my characters do so as well, although it’s rarely the focus of the story, just a bit of background information

Gillian: Yes, but nothing so complicated that I’d become unstuck. Unless it was essential to the storyline. Luckily, I’ve had lots of different jobs so for the most part have managed to draw on personal experience. So far at least… 😀

Karen: Most of my jobs haven’t been that interesting – 30 years as a legal assistant – but if I ever wrote anything contemporary, I wouldn’t eliminate the idea.

Deborah: A legal assistant is very interesting. You must have picked up lots of story ideas. Maybe a dual timeline to include the historical?

Karen: It was equally interesting and mind-numbingly boring. On the other hand, the repetitive work gave me a lot of time to think about stories.

Gerald: Definitely! But I never have. Because they would, of course, have to be the hero! It was pointed out to me fairly recently that one of my characters was similar to me – although different in many respects, he had similar attitudes to life and other people.

Kathleen: I did! The MC in my Vermont Radio Mystery is a DJ, which is how I started out. Worked in Vermont too. It’s a lot of fun to revisit and process the experience.

Deborah: I spent 20 years working in hospitals for the NHS but to write about it would feel boring to me. Maybe I should as it is so familiar to me.

Are there characters, places, situations that you would not attempt to write as a result of not having that experience?

Jing: I avoid highly technical situations, such as the workings of machinery, the details of solving a crime, medical sciences, etc. I worry about getting these things wrong in some ridiculous, overly obvious way.

Deborah: You could always ask an expert. I am lucky enough to have a friend who is a forensic scientist and lots of detective friends and health workers.

Jing: I thought about that but in the end none of it was terribly relevant to the story so I just found ways to gloss over it and focus on the important parts.

Karen: I’m willing to write about anything because it can always be either researched or I could find someone to interview. My bar would be something I couldn’t find a way to make interesting or it’s too unpleasant to want to do the research.

Deborah: I’m with you there. Nothing gruesome for me.

Karen: I have an idea for a story that would require a lot of research into the EPA and radioactivity. I don’t find that interesting at all, so I need to find the right entry point, because the story can’t be told without it.

Sandy: I know how important diversity is as a reader and a writer, but it’s not something I’ve focused on in my work yet. I don’t want to do it injustice. When I do try it, I want to add to the positive message, not distract from it.

Kathleen: Absolutely. I would never write from the perspective of a person of color. My characters are very diverse because I know and work with many different people…but I wouldn’t presume to have their experience or tell it through their eyes.

Gerald: I don’t know. I have enough existing story ideas to keep me going for decades. I do ‘light touch’ technical detail in my crime novels. I Google specific information (recently, I had to release a suspect “under investigation”, so I needed to find out how that worked). I try to concentrate on the characters, dealing with the situation I present for them. I think too much technical information can get a bit tedious.

What have you learnt by researching what you don’t know? Has writing led you to discover new, previously unknown worlds?

Maria: I’ve researched a lot about the Celtic era my historical fiction is based in. I know way more about the kingdoms of the ‘Old North’ than before I started writing!

Jing: I tend to research in little bits here and there as I write. I’ve learned odds and ends of what parts of houses are called, unique names of old furniture, some parts of machines, etc

Gerald: I think I’ve gained greater insight into aspects of the subjects I’m writing about. I don’t think I’d ever write about a completely strange world in fantasy or sci-fi. It sounds like too much hard work! Also, I tend to not research beforehand. I hate the idea of spending time researching things which get cut out of the story! If there’s something I don’t know, I highlight it in the text and ‘fill in’ at the end of the first draft.

Sandy: I’m of a similar mindset. I don’t research until I’m well into a draft and I have some idea of what I need to research. Coming up with random details that will never get used seems like a waste of time to me. 

Karen: I’ve got a foot in that boat. I research enough to be able to write a convincing plot, but I leave a lot of brackets with things that need to be filled in later. The only things I check while writing are whether people have died, because I don’t want to have to fix that after.

Deborah: For me it was the world of theatrical magic. I learnt how tricks worked. I even spent a few days at the British Library researching the history of magic and Victorian theatres.

Kathleen: This is utterly fascinating…and I totally envy you getting to do your research at the British Library. (I usually end up doing mine in my living room on a laptop!)

Jing: That sound super interesting! 

Deborah: I was in danger of doing too much research and not enough writing! I can share it all in newsletters and blogs when the book is published.

Sandy: I may have a novel for you when I finish writing it! It’s about a girl who owns a magic shop, but can also download real magic with her cellphone. I call it, wait for it… ‘There’s an App for That’ 🙂

Karen: My 1st book came from something I stumbled over in a bio of Henry VIII – he was such a music lover that he *bought* children for the royal choir. Of course, I had to think about what such a child’s life would be like. Even knowing the period, I always learn new things.

Kathleen: Absolutely! I love the research…but I’m a history buff to start!

Sandy: I’ve learned a lot about ancient history, medieval Europe, and Roman. The biggest thing I’ve learned though is to not skimp on the details. Every one makes the world richer and more realistic. 

Nettie: I get constantly told not to dump info. It is a fine line to thread. Personally, I love to read books with rich worldbuilding but apparently the average reader does not have the stomach for it.

How does your life experience express itself in your author voice? Your experience is unique and so is your voice. What is it that you aim to express through your writing?

Maria: Hopefully complicated characters who go on a journey in a particular historical setting. As a Christian I also like to bring some themes of the Christian faith into my writing.

Karen: I want to write about the everyday people who get lost in the shuffle of history. Henry and his queens are bit players in my stories, important because the heads of government affect the lives of ordinary people, but no more than that.

Jing: This may sound a little odd but I consider myself very average and go out of my way to create “average” MCs who are not special or super powerful. I think there’s more value in someone normal who succeeds through struggle and realistic effort.

Deborah: You are right. Sometimes MCs are also too damaged so that the story arc has more impact and yet we are all everyday heroes coping with day-to-day life.

Sandy: I grew up a bit of a loner. There were (are) very, very few people I actually trust. My characters tend to lean the same way. They don’t have a lot of friends and keep the deepest parts of their lives to themselves