Write what you know?

‘Write what you know’ – now there’s a sterling piece of advice. I’ve passed it on to quite a few students in my time. A little experience, an injection of actual pain, something that’s stirred the surface of your life – this is the stuff of good fiction, there is no doubt about it.

But writing what you know can mean sticking to the boring and familiar. Audacity and curiosity are also essential features of effective writing. Writing what you don’t know opens new worlds of possibility – you can write about anything you like if you take the trouble to find out about it.  And these two elements: of knowing and not knowing can work together. Experience combined with empathy can take the writer – and the reader – to the most exotic or remote places and to forgotten worlds. 

None of this is easy, though. When I started writing novels I thought I would be writing books drawing on social observation and the world around me. So I wrote two novels based on my take on contemporary life, featuring the war between the sexes, modern hypocrisy, etc, and thought this was my territory. But the books didn't sell enough for my publisher's liking, I was out in the cold once more, and I therefore decided to Go Historical.  I grew up reading Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece and Ian Serraillier, and loved the sense they gave of entering a time machine and flying back into history, tactile, sensory, vivid, convincing. I was sure I’d enjoy immersing myself in the past. The only problem was that I didn’t know very much about this place: The Past. Any of it. My knowledge of history was based on the Ladybird books, a selection of melodramatic 1970s movies including Anne of a Thousand Days, Nicholas and Alexandra and A Man for all Seasons and my O and A levels. My O-level focused on the Industrial Revolution and the social legislation which followed. 

There was also some Napoleonic business thrown in. I did well at this: I liked and believed in the idea of social progress. (It was the 1970s.)  My A level was a disaster. I became mired in the detail of the French Revolution, and the blood and horror got lost in dates and times of day and the minutiae of shifting alliances. The American War of Independence was just boring generals and pointless battles. My teacher, Mrs Cheer, used to steeple her fingers in what I considered a complacent manner while talking about The Battle of Ticonderoga, and I would stare dumbly at her, steeped in a horrible teenage knowledge of my own mortality.  (I just Googled this battle and there are four different possible options: this can’t have helped.)


So when I began a novel about William Shakespeare and Aemilia Bassano – the novel which became Dark Aemilia – I had to do One Hell of A Lot of Groundwork. Mrs Cheer would probably be proud of me, if not a little surprised. (I got a C for History instead of my predicted A. It still rankles.) And I now really do know quite a lot about Early Modern England, though not quite as much as I did when in the throes of writing the novel.

This was meant to be a post about the genius of Hilary Mantel! Watch this space...


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