Familiar worlds

Words Deana Luchia

The saying, write about what you know, is quoted time and time again at budding writers, which is to say: focus on the craft of writing rather than doing research on things you know nothing about.

Not everyone, of course, agrees that you should write what you know. I’ve just read something on goodreads from Toni Morrison who’s quoted as saying: ‘I’m telling you, no one wants to read that, ‘cos you don’t know anything.’

I think there’s much to be said for writing what do know for your first novel, because often what you know is what’s compelling you to write in the first place. It needs to come out. It’s why lots of people’s first novels are about their childhoods or their first love or first friends.

But then, with a second novel, why not write about something unknown? I always think I should do this when I read something set in worlds far removed from mine, with characters doing jobs I had no idea existed, travelling to places I’ve never been, encountering situations I’ve never come across. Maybe I should write something different too, I think, as I’m reading. Wouldn’t it be more fun? More of a challenge?

It’s easier said than done. In my second novel, I think I’m again writing what I know. There are two female characters. They work from home. They feel slightly out of the loop. They have feelings I identify with, even though (or perhaps because) one of these characters is an alien. And even though I’m still on novel 2, I’m thinking about novel 3 (really very optimistic of me!) and again, my main character will be someone I feel I know (a woman around my age), living somewhere I’m familiar with (Italy), grappling issues I’ve grappled with myself (loneliness versus being alone).

Even describing that unwritten third novel (just an idea, after all), I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should mix things up. Maybe I should write from an extroverted elderly male perspective, or a mountain goat’s or even a mountain. It already seems like fun. (My Masters thesis was on writers who write from a dog’s perspective, by the way, but more on that another time).

Or maybe I should just keep things human and write from an entirely different viewpoint. I’ve never really had a character who’s made me wince with the things she/he’s said. Wince with sympathy? Yes. But with horror? No. Not yet. Maybe that would be fun. Just to write a really unpleasant character. Don’t actors always say it’s so much more fun playing someone bad, than good? Maybe it’s the same with writing them.

I do have one ‘different perspective’ book brewing. In July, using Camp Nanowrimo, I’m attempting to finish a children’s novel I started and left about four years ago. My man character is a boy, just turned 13, who struggles with an egocentric parent. I like being in this weary (and eye-rolling) boy’s head. It’s fun trying to see what he thinks of the world.

And I think that’s maybe what matters more, not write what you know (after novel 1) but write what makes you happy, because the happier you are to write something, the more you’ll write.

What do you think? Do you find yourself sticking to familiar settings and characters or do you thrive on mixing things up? Does it matter?

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2 thoughts on “Familiar worlds

  1. Very thought-provoking post! I read an article by a literary agent once who said the trouble with writing what you know is that if you know it, maybe a lot of others know it too, and your book won’t stand out in the slushpile. He said try to write the book that only you can write, from a unique perspective. Easier said than done. I like your advice, Deana – write what you love!

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  2. Fine advice as always Deana and much appreciated. I guess writing what you know perhaps flows more naturally and as such tends to be naturally authentic. It’s advice I often give to youngsters who often believe that “good” writing has to be “Hollywood”. I guess more established writers often conduct the necessary research if exploring themes and events that may be unfamiliar. Writing what you know always works for me though. Again, thanks for your thoughts Deana 😀

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