Writing What You Know – or Not?

hulit-finished-illustrationHawkesbury Upton is a pretty little Gloucestershire village tucked away in the Cotswolds. I imagine it’s normally fairly quiet, but this certainly wasn’t the case last Saturday, 23rd April. Thanks to the local literary power-house that is Debbie Young (check out her excellent website here), the village was transformed by the Second Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival with a packed programme of workshops, panel methodist chapeldiscussions, readings and children’s storytelling, all in the delightful settings of The Fox Inn, The Methodist Chapel and a little café selling delicious cakes in the Methodist Hall.

I had a great day. I was kept very busy: reading stories (to grownups and children), listening to lots of interesting and inspiring writers, catching up with old friends, and sitting on one of the discussion panels, chaired by the lovely Jackie Kabler.

short story reading cropped

Our topic: Write What You Know – or Not?

Jackie was pretty clear of her own perspective on this question – after working for the BBC and ITV for twenty years, she’s set her humorous crime novels in a TV News studio (her first, The Dead Dog Day, was published in 2015), although she insists the murder of the newsroom boss is completely made up! My fellow panellists, Ali Bacon, John Holland, Mari Howard, Lynne Pardoe, and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, come from a variety of backgrounds, including teaching, social work and pregnancy counselling. Naturally there were a variety of opinions ranging along the continuum of:

Surely we all write what we know <———> But fiction means making things up

Speaking for myself, my plot and my characters are made up – to stick to what I know would be too constricting (and potentially libellous). Worse than this, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting story and insisting ‘Honestly! Every word is true!’ is no excuse for sending your readers to sleep. However, I use what I know to help me tell my story convincingly and bring it to life. My settings are based on places I know. My characters borrow aspects of their appearance, speech or mannerisms from people I’ve met or observed. Even the emotions I want to convey are dredged up from my own experiences and imagined into the story.

The_Woman_Who_Never__Cover_for_KindlejpgIn my book The Woman Who Never Did there are two stories (The Spoiler of the Fun & A Game of Pirates) with scenes set in a theme park. Fantasy Chine is based on Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight. I’ve aimed for the same look and feel, but not a precise copy, because I wanted to be free to mould Fantasy Chine to meet the needs of my story. In Gingerbread, my character Gee Geoffrey is not based on any one person I know, but in describing her appearance I had in mind a real person. And, although I belong to a book group, none of the other members appear as characters in the title story, The Woman Who Never Did – we’re all far too young!

The Dangers of Writing What You Know

cityscapesThis leads me to a situation that rang a bell for a number of us on the panel: sometimes a reader assumes that a story is based on the author’s own life. Hopefully this is because you’ve done such a good job in making your fiction believable, but it can be a cause of embarrassment. When my story Lulu’s London was first published in the Cityscapes anthology, there were a few raised eyebrows and pointed questions about my past.

Another danger of writing, or using, what you know is the temptation to cram everything in – resulting in a text book or a shopping list rather than a compelling work of fiction. Any information must be used to serve the writer’s purpose. To complement or highlight the story, rather than to distract your reader out of it.

And If You Don’t Know? Research!

One of the suggestions from the panel was that often our early writing is centred on what we know, but there comes a point where authors want to spread their wings. I’ve written about my fear of Research before on this blog (click here). Some people love it, to me it’s an occasionally necessary evil. But maybe I haven’t been approaching it in the right way – Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn went to Venice to research her latest novel, The Broken Road. Whereas when I needed to research a setting I sat in a café in Kenilworth…

In summary, I don’t think it matters how we choose to write – the story is the thing, however much (or little) of your own experience you use is up to you. The best thing I can do is to point you towards some great products of a variety of approaches by listing my fellow panellists.  I’ve included a link to their own website or Amazon author page – just click on their name.

panel discussion croppedN.B I’m the one waving my hands about behind Ali Bacon. Here are the other authors from left to right:

John Holland (almost out of shot – you can just see his nose)

Ali Bacon

Mari Howard

Lynne Pardoe

Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

Jackie Kabler

You can find out more about the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival here.


Acknowledgements: Thank you to Joanna Penn and Thomas Shepherd for letting me use your photographs and to Sophie E. Tallis and Lynne Davidson for permission to use your lovely line drawings of The Fox Inn and the Methodist Chapel.



4 thoughts on “Writing What You Know – or Not?

  1. Thanks for the mention, Jenny. I always try to set my novels in places I know and love.Venice is a particular favourite of mine, and I’d wanted to set something there for ages. I also used Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples, as a setting in another novel. But there are places in England I’ve used as well – Northumberland, Penzance, Lyme Regis, Plymouth … Should I try Kenilwoth next?!

  2. Hi, Lindsay, and thanks for commenting. Kenilworth is a lovely town – lots of great places to eat, a paradise for charity shop browsers (including me), a super little library and let’s not forget the beautiful castle. Some of the other places you mention are also favourites of mine. However, strictly for hardworking research purposes of course, I think I’d rather try Venice next time! :O)

  3. The great thing about using made-up place names, etc, is you’re never wrong! When reading fiction, usually, I don’t find myself wondering what the author really knows about something. I just want the characters to behave and speak in a believable way.

  4. Hello C. Barrett. Sometimes when a story is set in a real place that I know well I can’t resist the temptation to check all the details and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Since I’m not very good at research, made up places can be a much safer bet!

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