Why Should We Write What We Know?

Why Should We Write What We Know?

Why should we write what we know? Simply because it is so easy to get caught out if we are relying on research to cover us. Writers of contemporary fiction can need a huge amount of research if you aren’t writing what you know. If you happen to be a great researcher, well okay, but my advice to is be very careful. The risk of setting a story in a place foreign to you and developing characters whose lifestyle is different from your own, is that you can make glaring errors. A reader who knows the area and/or people may pick up on those errors and subconsciously dismiss you as an authority. You don’t need to be some literary icon to have readers expect perfection in your writing. This perfection doesnt only include your ability to use the written word correctly but also to give believeable value in your setting, characterisation etc.

Italy is the setting for many contemporary romance stories and of all the nationalities our heroes might be, Italians are probably the most numerous. Last year I was fortunate to spend three weeks freewheeling around that beautiful country. Although neither my husband or I spoke any Italian we managed to find our way and got into numerous interesting “conversations” with locals who didn’t speak English. The magic of travelling in other countries. Being a writer, I like to take careful note of everything around me, and this was especially true in Italy, the land of romance, gorgeous heroines and yummy heroes. I was shocked at what I discovered.

There were gorgeous women by the handful in the cities, slim and chic and so utterly beautiful I wanted to spit. It was the men who surprised me. I discovered tall Italian men are a myth. There appears to be no Italian male who is 6ft4in in his stocking feet, despite what the romance books tout. They might still fit the dark and handsome criteria, but tall? Sorry, the Italian male is not tall. Most of them were barely my height (5ft7in). I found myself checking as we walked down streets past men, were they my height or my husbands? We did see a very few who matched my husband’s 6ft but nowhere did anyone tower over him. I was hugely disappointed. But then, height in a man is important to me, being a tad on the tall side myself. But this was not the most surprising thing I discovered in Italy.

During our week in Tuscany we stayed in a village of possibly about 5000 people. We spent the days driving to nearby tourist sites or exploring the countryside and nearby villages. The evenings we sampled the varying restaurants that dotted the area and wandered around the village enjoying gelato. It was wonderful. But within the first couple of days I noticed something odd. Well, it appeared odd to me, anyway. There were no females between ages of about 6 and 60! In the whole week we stayed in Tuscany we never saw any younger women except in their places of work. Grandmotherly women would be around, often with small children, but there was even an absence of girls. In the square during the late afternoon/evening, men were sitting playing chess/talking/smoking, boys were tearing around on bikes and scooters and playing with soccer balls, but no females were in evidence at all. In the restaurants each evening, groups of men were congregating for meals together, but never with a female in sight. In one restaurant I received such strange looks from other customers I began to wonder if there was a “male only” policy in force and the owner decided to overlook it for one night. The couple of bars in the village were well patronised but again, only by men. Even in the supermarket, we never saw a woman younger than about 60 doing her shopping. This didn’t change during the weekend. We couldn’t find anyone (who spoke enough English to understand our question) to ask about this weird set-up until we got to Florence. There, the female hotel receptionist’s response? “Where is this village, I need to go and visit” – so we gather this is not necessarily the norm for all of Italy but it gave me pause for thought. Know what you intend to write about. If you’re going to set a story in rural Tuscany, perhaps you need to visit there yourself. Or at least be aware having your heroine wandering around, or going for evening runs etc is going to cause raised eyebrows at the very least among the locals, and possibly have her tarnished as a less than virtuous lady at the worst.

I stand by “write what we know” as the safest bet. No amount of research on the Internet would have told me that women stayed indoors in rural Tuscany. I know if I read a story set there again, I’m going to be looking to see if the author actually knows this ‘fascinating fact’. Discovering this definitely reinforced my thinking. I’m sticking to writing about my own backyard, New Zealand.

Have you been put off a story by something you know is incorrect? Some setting or characteristic point which you have personal knowledge of? Would you read another of that writer’s stories? Or do you just put it down to the writer’s use of poetic licence and not let it bother you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.



Why Should We Write What We Know? — 8 Comments

  1. Hi Marj
    Lovely to hear from you, thanks for leaving a comment. I’m sorry for my delay in responding, your post got lost in amongst my spam. I believe little things can go unnoticed if the story flows well, but a glaring mistake can stop that flow so suddenly it hits a reader right between the eyes and they find it hard to refocus again. Of course everytime I visit a new country/area I’m looking at setting books there, too, only to discover I like writing about Kiwis living in New Zealand. I have relations in Shetland Islands and love to visit there (I’m sure the spirit of the place still flows through my blood even though I’m generations away from belonging there). What an amazing place to set a romance, all those long, dark nights of winter, lol. I could even have a kiwi heroine visit. But what happens? My mind remains a blank. Nothing! Not even an inkling of a story tickles my brain cells. I think I might be stuck with writing what I know. I’m doing my best not to allow my stories to lose their excitement though

  2. Hi Rosanne
    Thanks so much for commenting on my post. I agree with your idea, sail close to the wind. But also as you mention, each book is a huge journey for an author, even if it is set in our own back yard. I have one story (yet to be submitted) where I have a secondary character with Altzeimers. He appears on the page only a couple of times, but he is the motivating factor for the hero’s actions. The amount of time I spent reading and talking with people about this disease astonished me but I needed to understand what his family were going through before I could portray their angst. I love that I’m always learning but nervously steer clear of deviating too far away from what I’m confident of knowing. I hope that doesn’t make me appear a little gutless?

  3. The ideal, of course would be to sail as close to your truth and your knowledge as possible, while including new details that you need to look up and familiarize yourself with. In all my three published novels, and the one I am writing now, I have used locations I am more than just familiar with, and customs and usage I grew up with. Being trilingual, I can include phrases from foreign languages that are correct, both culturally and grammatically. But I learn a whole heap with each novel (which is like doing a university degree each time!) because of the inevitable research involved. No matter how well one knows a place – even one’s own backyard, one needs to fact-check. No matter how familiar one feels away from one’s own turf, one needs to fact-check.

    Keeping solely to that you THINK you know has its own dangers. A book without a meaningful journey for the author runs the danger of being meaningless to the reader. One can almost SENSE the challenge, the breathlessness, the risk, the discovery of an author on a journey. It’s almost like being poised to flee from boredom. Discovery for the author – a learning voyage – is one of the most necessary things. So yes, it’s what you know, but what DO you know, really? How boring is safe?

    My WIP includes history of art (in which I am trained) and history of music (in which I am not). It is a hazardous journey I am enjoying tremendously, and learn as I go… and hopefully my readers will journey with me and ooh and ahhh with me. So what if one or two of my facts turn out to be wonky? It might be forgiven, and put to one side by a reader not likely to dismiss an entire work on the basis of an inaccuracy.

    We must run with the authors we love, who give us a glimpse into their passion, for ALWAYS, there is a glimpse into the human condition as seen by one generous enough to share an emotion, an experience, a vibe. Now whether it was 1882 or 1883?? We can live with that, perhaps, without being too anal about it.

  4. It can certainly be difficult to get things right sometimes, especially as your research might not necessarily be accurate. I set my hero in Oxford University, and did a lot of research to try and get it right. How should I have known that what I read about ‘Oxford University’ on their official site was not what people actually see when they go to one of the Colleges? It was fixed before publication, and I did learn that research might not be reliable.
    These days, I still use exotic settings when I choose, but instead of calling the place by its name, I turn it into a fictitious country or town. Get it right as much as I can, but no-one can say they’ve been there, and it’s not like that.
    The thing is that if I stick to only the things I know, my books will be a lot less exciting.

  5. Pingback: Why Should We Write What We Know? - Anne Ashby - New Zealand Romance Writer | Sarah's Scoops on Writing | Scoop.it

  6. Great article, Anne and very interesting. I’m a great believer in writing what you know best as well and yes, I do get irritated when I see blatant inaccuracies in books or films because the writer(s) haven’t done their homework.

    I had to smile about the short Italian men and the absence of younger women – the men I knew about, but not the women. That’s unusual. (Even in the more ‘primitive’ Greek villages, the women escape the house in the evenings). I’ve been to Italy many times and it’s without a doubt my favourite European country. I’m envious of your recent visit but so pleased you enjoyed it.

    Keep on blogging – this is great 🙂

  7. Pingback: Why Should We Write What We Know? - Anne Ashby - New Zealand Romance Writer | Books Direct | Scoop.it

  8. Oh yes!
    I must admit I nearly choked on my coffee when I read a book set in the US where the hero was eating and enjoying a kiwi. Of course they meant a kiwifruit, vastly different from our iconic flightless bird.
    But by far the most glaring lack of research I encountered was where the hero was RH negative and the heroine’s child needed blood transfusions…. sorry it aint gonna happen! As I know through heartbreaking experience an Rh negative man’s child never needs a blood transfusion. Now if he was Rh positive and the heroine was Rh negative…well that’s a whole different and scary scenario. And I am not a doctor just someone who has lost children through blood incompatability.
    When using plot devices like this the #1 rule to remember is…someone always knows.