My teenage imagination was drawn to the gothic - to houses riddled with secret passages and priest holes, to heroines held prisoner by evil relatives, to highwaymen, smugglers and pirates. So, to be set an essay about ‘what you did in the holiday’, was not only cripplingly boring, it was also divisive. I would have spent most of my summer in prosaic occupations - drawing, reading and writing, and taking our dog for a walk. Then holidaying nowhere more thrilling than Cornwall. But there were always those who’d been to the French Riviera or skiing in Colorado, who’d visited safari parks or gone sailing. Far safer and more interesting to invent something.
For most of us, it isn’t until you have at least 3 decades under your belt, that you begin to realise what is really meant by ‘write about what you know’. More importantly, you will probably have experience of one or more of life’s big events - falling in love, heart-break, bereavement, marriage, divorce, illness, the birth of children - and now have the maturity to draw something deeper from the life you have lived. But ‘write about what you know’ is still a misleading adage. If you were only ‘allowed’ to write truthfully about what you had personally experienced, you wouldn’t be producing fiction you’d be writing a documentary account of your own life, wouldn’t you?
Fiction is fiction because you’ve made it up. It’s a story! There are some writers who almost make it a point of principle to set their novels in countries they’ve never even visited. I admire their chutzpah but I haven’t their courage, or the energy needed to do the necessary research. I set my stories in a world I know, but seen through the distorting glass of my imagination. And I draw on events that have happened to me, but only after a passage of time has filtered the rawness of the emotions and the crowding, irrelevant detail. The experience is then tailored, nipped, tucked and embroidered, to fit my story.
But the advice to ‘write about what you know’ can also find expression in more subtle and nuanced ways. When writing about your imaginary characters, living in the imaginary landscape you’ve created, with their imaginary problems and their imaginary hopes and fears, you are mining everything you have absorbed about life, about people, about motivation and instinct. And to make your invented characters’ experiences come to life, you call up your sense memories of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. These may be nostalgic - a hill top in early summer, the fields below gilded by a sheen of yellow buttercups; the smell of the hedgerow, of May blossom, Lady’s Lace and nettles; the feel of the chill, dewed grass against skin; the song of a skylark and a distant tractor. But the sense memories you’ve accrued through your life may equally be horrific, like the jarring impact of a car crash. You still recall the screeching tear of metal, the smell of petrol, singed rubber and asphalt and those long, cold moments of stunned silence, before the first cry of a baby.
Nothing is forbidden to the writer’s palette. Everything you have ever known, seen, felt, smelt, suffered, is there to be used, to turn your imaginary world into a world the reader believes in.