Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What does it mean to write what you know?

Several years ago I attended a Memorial Day neighborhood picnic, and met several newcomers to the area. One woman scowled at me when she heard I was a writer. She said, "I suppose you look around at us for characters and use what we say in your books." I've remembered her comment for its naked suspicion and hostility, as though every writer were out to exploit the people we meet. Perhaps some writers do, but for the most part writers don't misuse real people. So, what does it mean when we tell beginning writers to write what you know?

During a recent talk I tried to explain how writers use their own lives to give depth and authenticity to a
story. In the Mellingham series, Chief of Police Joe Silva is the middle of seven children. I'm only the third of four, so I don't know what such a large family feels like. But my father was the middle of nine children, and he often told stories about growing up in a large family living in a small house. He lived in a household with his parents and six sisters, two brothers, and one bathroom. The dining table couldn't seat everyone, and his father was a great reader, with a special chair in the living room by the front window. This is all I needed to imagine Joe's birth family.

Anita Ray lives in Hotel Delite, a tourist hotel in a resort in South India. I once stayed at a hotel on the beach that had been a private home. The layout ensured that all rooms viewed the sea, and when it was converted to a hotel the small size made it easy to manage. In other parts of India I encountered hotels named Delite, which I found charming, so I borrowed the name. The original home/hotel has since been greatly enlarged, the restaurant enlarged, the kitchen moved, and the dining room moved. The hotel I write about is long gone, but the atmosphere lives on.

As a photographer, I enjoy working ideas about this art, or craft, into the story, as well as pointing out how it affects the way Anita looks at things. But I have to work to learn more about photography, to keep up with Anita, who is far more expert than I am. I learn from other photographers, and include some of their insights and discoveries and practices.

Every writer overhears a conversation that is tantalizing, but as Henry James warned, we don't want to hear too much. We want just enough to spark the imaginative journey; otherwise it's just unpleasant gossip. In any city or town, we see people pass by and barely notice them. But if we did, we'd find our visual vocabulary strikingly enriched. A father and his son, the boy a perfect miniature of the man with red curly hair, slight body, pigeon-toed walk, and tipping shoulders, stroll a beach. A teenage girl wearing a black slip as a dress under a red denim jacket, purple hair and dangly earrings recites what she told her boyfriend the night before, insisting that he should behave better and act like an adult, an admonition that might have come out of her grandmother's mouth. There are no secrets here, no confidences violated and no intent to mock or demean.

Neighbors and others have every reason to feel vulnerable around their writer friends, because writers have an outlet and an audience denied to most. But responsible writers, and most are, don't use that their position to balance a perceived injustice, or exploit someone's powerlessness. The small details we pull out of real life are shimmering proof of authenticity of feeling and experience, not of one particular person's life.

Writers can protect against using anything real that might injure another. I take great care in inventing names that cannot be traced to any real person in my area. I ask friends if I can use the layout of their house or apartment for a character. I sometimes even ask if I can use a special phrase a friend uses because I suspect she'll recognize it if she reads the final book. I invent towns, street names, shops, and businesses because the point is to tell a good story, not delve into someone else's private life.

The advice to write what you know might be emended, following Hemingway, to "write what you know is true," true to life, true to your own experience, true to your perceptions of the world and its people. Anything else is false to your calling as a writer.


  1. You should have told that woman at the barbecue, "No, I only write about interesting people."