Monday, March 05, 2007

If I wrote only what I know, they'd be short stories, not novels

This morning I skimmed an interview with novelist Beryl Bainbridge in The Guardian. When the journalist invited her to give some advice to aspiring authors, Ms. Bainbridge replied:

I don't think you should ever try to make things up. We all lead such strange lives that there is no need to. Use your own experiences and then twist it a bit.

Clearly, Ms. Bainbridge is an honors graduate of the Write What You Know School. But I maintain it can be much more exciting for a writer to plunge into situations and emotions she hasn't experienced and doesn't understand. Sure, wisdom and experience are required to make a novel ring true. But what's wrong with aquiring that wisdom and experience during the writing process? Research is always required to craft a good novel; more than a little revising and refining is always necessary, as well. So the "ignorant" author is always afforded plenty of opportunities to get her story straight.

I don't ask for the author's credentials when I pick up a novel. I don't care who she is, where she's been, or what she knows. All I ask is that she make me believe for a few hours that the characters in her story are real people in real situations. Whether she can do that has little to do with her real-life experiences; it's her writing ability that counts.


Shauna said...

Uh, I'm a stay-at-home mom, and I don't have many "experiences" outside of changing diapers and wiping runny noses! I NEED to imagine other people and places. It keeps me sane! Besides, diapers and noses wouldn't sell many books! LOL!

Marianne Arkins said...

Shauna, LOL! I'm pretty much in your shoes (though I lead a fairly interesting life up to my daughter's birth eight years ago).

I'm writing a short story set in the late forties right now. Should I not do this this since I was born in the sixties?

And if folks "wrote what they knew", we'd have no fantasy novels, no historical fiction, no science fiction.

The fact is: It IS fiction. I'm not writing an autobiography in any way. Half the fun is putting your characters in to situations you'd NEVER want to be in and seeing what happens.

Neal said...

I've always had a problem with the "write what you know" philosophy, but I've also interpeted slightly differently: "don't write what you don't know", or, "write what you know, or write what nobody knows". In other words, far from not having fantasy, science fiction, etc. if we only wrote what we know, it's actually the reason why we _do_ have it.

I suppose my problem with "write what you know" is that I blame it on my own reluctance to get my finger out and write something: at a fundamental level, I _do_ agree with "write what you know", and in the words of a famous waiter from Barcelona, "I know nothing". "Write what you know", to me, means that I could never write, for example, a story that involved any detail about the workings of the police (unless I researched it first).

But that's just my own paranoia. As a reader, I agree with you totally. I think Beryl Bainbridge is being too extreme, and I ultimately read for entertainment, and am unlikely to get my magnifying glass out and examine the plot for holes. But not everyone is as forgiving as me in that department.

Brenda Coulter said...

I think Beryl Bainbridge is being too extreme

Yeah. I wonder if she was over-generalizing or if she actually believes that know-nothings like you, Neal, shouldn't be writing crime novels.

She did say in the interview that her novels were based on her own experience and then "twisted a bit."