Sunday, 15 April 2012

Write What You Know?

Edge Author Katie Dale asks "Should you write what you know?"

The saying goes "write what you know", but where would fiction be if we all did that? No magic, no vampires, no dystopia  - no Harry Potter, no Twilight, no Hunger Games...

But authenticity - and consistency - is important, as there's no faster way to alienate a reader than to describe something inaccurately, whatever world/planet/magical location is being described. If the reader knows better than the author on any element of the story - be it the geography of Forks, or London, or the right technique for shooting a bow and arrow - it can jolt them out of the reading experience and unnecessarily interrupt the enjoyment of an otherwise good story.

But even if the book is a contemporary realistic novel, it is practically impossible for a writer to be an expert on every single aspect of the story they are writing, even if they are an expert on the main theme. I'm continually surprised by the amount of research I find myself having to do in order to write accurate depictions and scenarios, from which flowers are in bloom at a particular time of year, to the motor skill development of a three year old, to sentencing guidelines for different crimes - it's seemingly endless! But it's also fascinating, and sometimes the research itself can take your story into a whole new direction.

Someone Else's LifeWhen I started writing Someone Else’s Life, I had never heard of Huntington’s disease. I was writing a story about Rosie, a girl who was deliberately swapped at birth, but I needed a reason why she would discover the switch had occurred, and I decided that the reason could be genetic. So I started researching genetic diseases and stumbled upon Huntington’s disease, a hereditary condition with symptoms similar to the physical effects of Parkinson’s plus the mental decline of Alzheimer’s. I was surprised to discover that while there are around 6,000 reported cases in the UK it’s thought that there may actually be up to twice as many cases, because people often hide their condition, are mis-diagnosed, or even decide not to be tested.
Why? Because there is no cure.
This got me thinking. What would Rosie do? What would I do, if I were at risk?
What would you do, knowing that you could never change the results? 

Suddenly, instead of being a novel centred around one girl discovering her true identity, Huntington’s disease became the beating heart at the centre of my story, which consequently evolved into a  much deeper, more emotional tale about secrets and lies, devastating ethical decisions, the complexities of family, and the enduring strength of love through any adversity, and because it was a real disease affecting thousands of people, I felt a huge obligation to be completely accurate in my depiction of the disease, and consequently spent a long time researching the disease, and talking to people affected by it.

Likewise, Mark Robson, author of Devil's Triangle and ex-pilot, told to me how when he was writing a scene about a character falling off a cliff he needed to know exactly what that felt like. Of course, research has its limits, so he didn't go out and jump off a cliff(!) but instead went to an indoor skydiving centre and convinced them to let him go in the simulator with no protective gear on! He described how his hair felt like it was being ripped from his skull, and his eyelids turned inside out - details he would never have guessed without trying it himself.

Of course, there are some things you just can't research - the temperature of a vampire's skin, the smell of an undiscovered planet, the feeling of a spell leaving your magic wand - for those you have to let your imagination run wild! But by doing so you are creating your own frame of reference, which must, in turn, be adhered to for the rest of the book - or series!

But if you can, I'd say do write what you know, as much as you can - even if it's not what you already know - for who knows what exciting, unexpected, weird or wonderful places your research will take you?!


  1. This is a fabulous and really important post. One I will be sharing with my students as they need to remember this. I, in the past, have slept on the streets, visited drugs rehabilitation centres and visited Caen, all in the name of research. Thank you

  2. This is a brilliant post, Katie, and as Ness says, important too. It is imporant to write about what one knows, but one can always know more through constant learning. Research is one of the best parts of being a writer.

  3. Research is so important. As is reading other books to see how other writers have handled specific situations. People really shock me when they say they don't read books in the same age bracket they're writing in because they don't want to be influenced. Pardon? If you don't know what's out there, how are you making sure you aren't writing that's already been written? And knowing what's been done, highlights what you can do or what you can do differently. It's a big sandbox, all you have to do is be prepared to push your boundaries and do the research, because no one ever reached the top of a mountain by just thinking about it. This is such an important blogpost, Katie. Thanks for putting it up.