I’d like to thank novelist Cathryn Hein for contributing this guest post about writing what you know. Cathryn wrote this piece ahead of the launch of her fourth rural romance novel, Rocking Horse Hill. She finally gave in to her life-long desire to write while living in Provence, France. Her short fiction has been recognised in numerous contests, and published in Woman’s Day. Cathryn’s first three novels, Promises, Heart of the Valley and Heartland were finalists in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Australian Romance Readers Awards. In September she will release The French Prize, her first romantic adventure story. You can find out more about Cathryn here.
By CATHRYN HEIN
Write what you know is common advice given to aspiring writers, but is it good advice?
On the yes side, writing what you know enables you to draw on all your life experiences; the little things that make stories richer and bring them to life. The grassy scent of fresh cut lucerne in the summer, as if the colour green has some to life. The way a coastal wind feels as it shifts onshore and brings with it the smell of sea and salt. The determined yet careful way an old lady moves her arthritis swollen fingers as she tries to work the buttons on her shirt, too proud to ask for help. The way a dog winds around its bed as though stomping the blankets into shape before finally resting. What it feels like to have your heart broken; the utter desolation and hollowness. The incredible physical pain of it.
These things and more make stories richer because we’ve felt or witnessed them. They come from truth. And truth makes characters and settings and stories real and believable.
On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Stephen King hasn’t encountered a vampire or a possessed car, or knows what it’s like to be trapped under a dome. I’m equally certain that the majority of crime writers haven’t murdered or raped or done any of the other horrific things they describe so assuredly in their books. Science fiction and fantasy authors invent worlds that no one knows or ever will know except through their stories. Historical writers resurrect times whose details are learned from other sources. And, dare I say it, perhaps erotica authors create all that multi-orgasmic bondage sex purely from their imaginations. Then again…
Personally, I like writing what I know. I like being able to draw on special moments, to add pieces of myself into a story. I adore being able to take a treasured memory and lend it to a character. My latest release, Rocking Horse Hill, has a few of these memories. I gave the heroine Emily my late beloved collie Cooch as a pet. Now Em gets to enjoy the sweet comfort of Muffy pressing her fluffy shoulder against her calf the way Cooch used to against mine. I gave her the memory of what it’s like to slide on your bum from the top of an extinct volcano to the bottom on a dirt track. I gave her the joy of galloping helmetless along a beach on horseback, exultant with freedom and life.
I give my stories lots of myself. As for the rest? Well, there’s always imagination, research and Google.
Anyway, instead of writing what you know, isn’t it more important to write something you like and actually want to read?
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A story in which the author draws from real life experiences often has something ‘extra’ or ‘special’. I’ve just read ‘Foal’s Bread’ by Gillian Mears. In this story, not only has she has drawn from her horse-riding days, but also from her experience of Multiple Sclerosis. The reader senses the authenticity even in the things that are unwritten.
That was an extraordinary book, wasn’t it, Louise? You are so right about sensing what was unwritten, especially with the character of Roley.
Catherine, the images in this short piece are so vividly drawn they are a wonderful example of how ‘writing what you know’ can brings words to life for the reader.
Thank you! That’s a lovely comment.
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