Monday, December 27, 2010


One of the first pieces of advice I got when I started to write was: 'write what you know'. So when I started to write a novel set in Wyoming - a place I'd never been - I thought I was in trouble. But my story is set in the 1880s and I'm never going to see Wyoming in that era anyway. It would be like expecting Tolkien to have visited Middle Earth before he wrote the books. (And before the advent of Peter Jackson!)

For a while it worried me that all my characters ride horses. I haven't ridden a horse since I was a kid.  But then I realised that most of the things that happen in my story are foreign to me. For example: being shot in the leg; milking a cow; riding a train over the Sierra Nevada's; smoking a cigarette; hunting game with a Henry rifle; gutting and skinning a rabbit; experiencing a blizzard. Now I am sure there are simply thousands of books where the author hasn't experienced half of what they write. And when I think of all those crime books out there, I think we should be glad crime writers don't get first hand experience!

I've read almost every book the library has on the West and guns, horses and outlaws. I've read dozens of novels set in a similar era and then of course there's the movies. And where would any writer be without the internet? There is nothing you can't read up on or watch. You-tube is helpful too. Recently I've watched a broom being made with a 19th Century broom machine, watched a Colt revolver being cleaned then loaded and witnessed elk and wolves in their natural habitats.

I've come to the conclusion that 'writing what you know' is not so much about place and setting, but about people: what makes them tick; what motivates them; how they react to each other; the full range of emotions.  Can you write a romance if you've never been in love? Can you write a thriller if you've never been scared? Could I write the story of Maddie if I hadn't had to strive for acceptance and a place in life, myself? No.

So, with confidence, I can say that I am 'writing what I know'.


  1. Good point Sue. I think you have hit the nail on the head with this one.

    Where would fantasy and SF writers be if you had to experience everything you wrote first hand. There would certainly be no dragons, monsters, vampires, space craft, alien invasions or life on other world stories if this were the case.

    Writing is about combining what we know and have experienced with the wonderful workings of our imaginations.

  2. Pen - You're right, it all begins in our imagination.

  3. No historical fiction author can really write 'what they know.' That's where the wonderful research comes in! I told my mom recently that research for novels is almost like time travel - when you immerse yourself in history from a past era you really feel like you're there (and sometimes don't want to come back).

  4. Elisabeth - I know the feeling! The past becomes so real.

  5. I agree. What you know about humanity and life and people and body language and sadness and happiness and love. I don't think the setting matters as much.

    ... Although, research is always helpful. Have a great week.