The accepted advice to writers is very often, write what you know and when I first heard it I thought it made a lot of sense. It still does make sense, sort of…
Bookshelves are peppered with court-room dramas penned by ex-lawyers, police procedural by cops and war stories by ex-military personnel. I can see how that works. Budding writers with this kind of background have a flying start, they know things that us ordinary mortals don’t know. They can write a very convincing and authoritative line on criminal profiling or surface-to-air missiles.
But what about the rest of us? I, for example, have been lucky to travel a lot and live in very different parts of the world. I’ve had a few different jobs, raised a family. But I haven’t been into outer space and I’ve never professionally (or otherwise – I hasten to add) dissected a human being. So does that preclude me from Sci-Fi and stories that require an insider’s description of a mortuary?
No, it doesn’t, but it does mean that if I want to write a credible story about a geeky young scientist who seems like a total fruitcake but whose genius is going to save the world from a mega-quake, I’m going to have a harder job than if I had just retired from on a dazzling career in seismology. I would need to do my research extremely thoroughly. No problem. Writers do that all the time. Writers create worlds and whether it is a contemporary concrete jungle or a kingdom, so far away that nobody has heard of it (yet), ravaged by marauding dragons, they have to get it right.
So, if knowing your fictional world, with its landscape and its skill-set is not necessarily a pre-requisite but, we accept, can also be achieved by careful research and understanding, is there anything else that a writer must vitally know?
The answer for me is yes. I need to know my characters, inside out, upside down, backward and forwards. I need to know what they would do if…
With time and perseverance, I can gather the knowledge I need to create the landscape of my story. I can read other books, I can google it, I can watch YouTube and I can ask people in the know. But if I really want my story to come alive I must get to know the characters who walk there, as only I can. These are my people, I don’t want to introduce them to the world if they are still strangers to me. And knowing them, I need to be true to them every time, no matter how much their refusal to go down into the deep, dark cellar while the wind howls and the lightning flashes, messes with the plot. I need to be absolutely sure that their actions and reactions are theirs and not mine and I need to respect that.
Know who you write. This is my mantra. When an author truly knows his or her characters they leap out of the page and stalk the reader right through to The End. They are memorable. They make us, the reader, think, question, admire, loathe.
And that’s what all writers want. (readers too!)
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