“Write what you know” is a piece of advice to new writers that can be very inhibiting. What do we know? If writers restrict themselves to writing about their experience, we would have a lot of boring books about humdrum lives. Whole genres would not exist: fantasy, science fiction, paranormal. But there is a grain of truth in the saying. We should write what is real, even if what we write is fantasy. So how do writers do that? This is a question that fascinates me.
In some cases the answer is obvious: Tolkien may have been living the quiet life of an academic in Oxford, but he was a world expert on Anglo Saxon and Norse mythology. However the Lord of the Rings is more than a rehash of old stories. The book is seen through the eyes of the hobbits. Their tale is profoundly influenced by Tolkien’s experience as a young officer in the trenches of World War I. The hobbits are the British regular soldiers, whose stoicism and good humour Tolkien so admired. As an officer Tolkien had led them over the top into the Mordor-like landscape of no-man’s land. They bring a sense of reality to the book.
Most writers do not have such rich personal sources on which to draw. But we do have the reality of our fantasies. We can take that reality and spin it into something much larger. The Bronte sisters’ novels are a good example of this.
I have three main sources of inspiration for my novels. Mother of Wolves was a historical fantasy novel, so clearly history is a massive source of material for me. History gives an almost unlimited range of themes, settings and storylines. For Mother of Wolves I drew on the history of the persecution of the romanies (gypsies) in Europe. I discovered that in the 18th century they were hunted by men with dogs and guns as if gyspies were simply vermin. Such a hunt features in my book. The central character is a woman who rises to be a gypsy queen, so I used the examples of great women leaders, such as Boudicca and Elizabeth I, to help me understand what it takes to be such a woman. As these women are extraordinary, I could never hope to meet one in person.
The second source is the landscapes, towns and peoples of the world. Travel can be a great aid to the writer, but it is also possible to use the landscapes of one’s homeland and elaborate them. In my magic-realism book Girl in the Glass I created a fictional city. The city is a large port set on several hills and on one hill stands a university which lives in an uneasy relationship with the rest of the city. I have been asked which city it is based on, as it seemed so real to the reader. The answer is that it is several cities combined: Istanbul, Oxford, Victorian London to name three. In Mother of WolvesI came closer to home and set the story along a fictional river, which was based on an enlarged River Severn and the history of the people along its banks.
The third source is my personal experience and those of people I have met. I have been blessed with a loving family and a life untroubled by war, disease or other misfortune, but for about twenty years I worked with people on the margins of society. I am able to draw from their stories of fleeing their homes and countries, of persecution, of homelessness. I’d like to think that I don’t just use them, but I am a writer and writers will find inspiration everywhere.
So should a writer follow the advice “Write what you know”? If we read, study, travel and listen, what we “know” is only limited by our capacity to understand.