If you’ve got as far as checking out the bits and pieces of my writing I’ve put up on this website, you’ll probably have noticed that realism isn’t really my jam. Even when I try to write topically, it still somehow descends into the realms of folklore and monsters, or parody and pop culture.
The whole “write what you know” thing doesn’t really apply, then?
Actually, no – it stands up, even for fantasy/sci-fi/nonsense writers such as myself; although I would probably add that if you don’t feel like writing about anything you currently know, you should “write what you’re excited to learn about”.
For example, were you to invite me to a dinner party there’s a good chance I would bore your other guests senseless on the topic of Stonehenge having spent months researching it whilst writing the pilot for my neolithic sitcom Henge. Yeah, I don’t get invited to a lot of dinner parties.
I knew very little about Stonehenge*, Durrington Walls, or the Neolithic Period in general before I started writing Henge; but I’d seen a documentary and it had given me an idea for a project. As I find archaeology fascinating (HUGE Time Team fan. Huge) I was really excited to read up on it, and the more I read the more my idea grew until I knew enough to write a fully fleshed out, (pre)historically accurate script.
Ok, but what about totally made-up stuff where there’s nothing to research?
Even when you’re creating an entirely new world from scratch, you still need to know as much as you can about that world and how it works. You need to know the politics of that world, you need to know the physics of that world, you need to know what is and isn’t possible in that world – in other words, you really need to know that world! So even in the craziest of Sci-Fi Fantasies, you will still be writing what you know.
But it’s not just about world building. Let’s take my audio play Death’s Door – if you’re not familiar with it, it’s set in the place you find yourself immediately after you die. Also, why aren’t you familiar with it? You can download it here for just 79 of your British pence, so go download and listen to it, and I’ll see you back here in 20 minutes. Here’s a quick teaser if you need convincing:
Right, done – am back.
Thank you. I’m glad you’ve listened to it because there are going to be some spoilers.
Obviously I don’t have a working knowledge of precisely what happens after we die, nobody does. But one thing we’re all very familiar with is sitting across a desk from someone waiting to hear your fate while they splosh about in a seemingly endless reservoir of bureaucracy. So I imagined it as that.
In order for the story to work, my dearly departed needed to have died suddenly and I settled on car accident pretty quickly; but for comedy value I wanted them to be driving for a really undramatic reason. The first time I found myself on a speed awareness course, it was because I’d been snapped going slightly over the limit whilst rushing to get to a garden centre before it closed (anyone who knows how bad I am at plants will no doubt appreciate the irony of that). What, I thought to myself, could conjure less dramatic imagery than a garden centre?
My favourite thing about this particular script is that I managed to legitimately shoehorn in an Australopithecus reference. Yes, dear reader, I’d watched another documentary. This one was about the excavation of a cave which was full of hominin bones – fascinating stuff for a geek like me. The guy who headed up the team said it was interesting that there were no other animal bones in the cave, as one would expect had the hominins been predated. He briefly mused that they must have either dragged themselves in there when they realised the end was nigh, or been taken there post-mortem in a sort of burial. And then he wondered whether this could have been the first spark of religion. Ergo “We’ve only been processing souls ever since the idea of a soul was originally mooted. My first client was an Australopithecus”. Yes, I am ludicrously proud of myself.
Lots of “write what you know” examples, gotcha
I won’t go over every single instance where I’ve managed to wangle in Stuff Wot I Know because we’ll be here all day, but I will just give you one more: Crawley. If you’re going to diss a birthplace, you should probably make it your own. I was born in Crawley Hospital far longer ago than I’m going to admit here. The birth in the script was probably a home birth, though, as I believe the hospital itself has long since been bulldozed.
In conclusion, and contrary to appearances, I do very much write what I know. You could go so far as to say that my work is actually ridiculously self-involved – but then again, whose isn’t?
* Fun fact: Stonehenge, the most famous henge in the world, is not technically a henge. My sitcom is named for Durrington Walls, which is. That’s the kind of nerdy statement you can expect me to come out with in social situations. Yup. Not a lot of dinner party invitations coming my way…