There are two ends of the spectrum on whether or not you should ‘write what you know’. One end, as the phrase suggests, believes that you should write what you know because you’ll be able to show a deeper understanding. The other side, as you may have guessed, gives the suggestion that what you know has nothing to do with what you can write in fiction. ‘Write what you don’t know, so that you may know it better’ I believe is the phrase.
Either way, whether your intention is to write cosy small town fiction or the most epic of fantasy, what we know will always be apparent in our fiction. We use our experience, not as the whole, but as a building base. Our education leads us down paths history may have travelled before, but we walk them on different landscapes and with different skies.
As well as working on Out of Orbit and Meat, I’ve also been working on a few other projects. Mostly, this is sporadic work when pressure becomes too much. I wrote before about the confidence crash, how the bar on these two series has been set now and I have to jump over it. When that bar looks too high, when the run up a little too daunting, I like to work on something else for a little while, something nobody knows about. Something that has no bar.
The project I’ve been using for the last month or so is a post-pandemic called Fever Rig. I’m not going to put a bar on it by explaining it in detail.
One thing I have found entertaining whilst writing this (apart from the lack of high jump) is that I’ve been able to drop in little hints of things from my own life. I’ve never been in a pandemic before, especially not one that wipes out two thirds of the world’s population, but there are little things that I can put in which amuse me greatly every time I reread them.
In the chapter I’m currently working on, POV character Cooper is getting snippy with his new colleague because she didn’t lock the ambulance door when she got out. When she asks what the big deal is, he regales her with a story about when their ambulance was stolen whilst on a call out. It’s a nice little moment in a relationship that has been quite fraught until now.
Now, I’ve never worked in an ambulance, nor have I ever stolen one. A story very much like this one was told to me whilst I was completing First Aid training with the British Red Cross (a requirement of my job.) Obviously, all the details have been changed for this retelling but I loved that little insight, an incident which begins to explain some of Cooper’s obsessions when it comes to his job.
Another part of the story that I am enjoying is the little digs I’ve been able to throw in regarding health and safety. Working in a Student Halls of Residence (Dorms for the Americans) and with a job on hotel reception before that, I’ve been subjected to more health and safety training than I know what to do with. Most of it, while important (and the law) is incredibly boring and I’ve sat in rooms being told the importance of wet floor signs and fire safety leaflets all too often.
Again, I’ve never worked in a hospital, but I can imagine that they are very on the ball about their health and safety. As a portion of the story takes place in a hospital, I wanted to have those little nuggets, even though the world has changed drastically. Someone’s mopping the floor, they still use the wet floor sign simply because it’s been ingrained in them.
When people talk about writing what you know, I don’t think it should be looked at as the whole. I think that these little bits of our knowledge and experience add up to more than the creation of a well rounded story. We use these little hints, not only as hints into our characters, but also to us as the writer.
That way, we don’t just write what we know, we let the reader know us.