Write What You Know

When it comes to deciding what to write, writers fall into two camps. The first is the Maeve Binchy camp. Maeve Binchy made no secret of the fact that her fiction was entirely based on things she had experienced. She felt that if she hadn’t experienced something, she had no business writing about. And it was clear that she found quite enough material in her own life to draw from.

Write What You Know About

The second camp is the John Connolly Camp. John Connolly is a crime writer and to my knowledge, he has no experience of chasing down homicidal maniacs on the East Coast of America. But he’s very interested in people who do and he’s done his research. He told a group of teenagers at a summer camp in the Fighting Words Centre in Dublin to “write what you know about.”

Crime writer John Connolly: write what you know about

I respect John Connolly’s view. Let’s face it, our own lives are really only interesting to us. And one of the great privileges of being a writer is to get under the skin of other people’s lives, to experience lives that are completely different from our own. These writers create very compelling books. But I come down in the Binchy camp, because I don’t believe you can ever escape yourself.

 Can’t Escape Experience

Even in books which don’t appear to resemble the author’s life in any way, the author’s experience leaks in. John Boyne, who’s also in the Connolly camp, writes about a wartime love affair between two men. Who can say what influence his own sexual orientation had in his choice? Equally, the scriptwriter for Gladiator was going through a marriage breakup while writing the script, which may explain why Maximus was parted from his love.

Some literary critics give off the vibe that writing about what you know is lazy, self absorbed and indicates a lack of experience. But no one criticises Stephen King for setting all his books in Maine, or Colm Toibin for writing about Enniscorthy, his home town.

But writing what you know still comes with a huge challenge – to write about your own life in a way that speaks to other people. That’s what I aimed to do with The Pink Cage. I had things I yearned to say about what it’s really like to be visually impaired. I hoped that by writing the book would let other people know what it was like and give them food for thought. Writing what you know gives you a chance to process what you’ve experienced and make it universal.

What camp do you fall into? The Binchy or the Connolly camp?

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7 thoughts on “Write What You Know

  1. I’m not sure “writing what you know” is simply about your life. What we know is often instinctual – it’s the gut knowledge; the glimpse into the soul; the sense of something. Those are the things we need to write nbot just about but from.

  2. Is it possible to have a foot in both camps? I am currently writing a novel where I know already the gist of the story ( novel wil be based on real life events) and also the landscape, locality, town,even some of the same roads and paths. What I dont know is how the main characters tick, their hopes, fears, motivations or desires. Without some conflict between my main characters I wont really have a novel, I will have an account, record or essay and thats not what I want.I have to try and get inside the head of a murderer and his victims. This is all new to me but vital to the story. I can use some known and established facts about them but a lot will be poetic licence. Its a challenge writing about something you dont know but not impossible and in my case its vital that I do it properly…….

    1. I guess you’re writing more what you know about – if the real life events aren’t actually from your own real life. Also, writing what you know relates more to subject matter than to characters. All authors start from scratch when creating characters – even if they’re real life ones.

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