These past few weeks I’ve seen the same tweet pop up again and again at irregular intervals. I find that it annoys me, but every time I try to copy it my feed refreshes, so you’ll have to bear with me because I don’t remember the exact wording or who is credited with dropping these bon mots.
Loosely remembered: writing what you know will get you 2 – 3 books max. Authors write from empathy.
Yes, if you just write what happened to you, then you will probably just get 2 – 3 books. It’s called an autobiography.
But writing what you know isn’t just about writing your own life experiences. And while every author should have empathy, for something to read true, it has to be written true.
A few weeks ago I went to Comic Con Copenhagen with my son and one of his friends. Geek, guilty. Manu Bennett was there giving a Q & A. My son wanted to see him because he was something or other in Arrow, I wanted to see him because he was Azog the Defiler in The Hobbit. I rather wanted to scowl at him and hiss, ‘You killed Thorin,’ but he was so articulate and charming that I forgave him for being the horrible white orc.
Someone asked him what it was like to play a character who’s experience was different from your own. How you did that. He told them it was about taking something from your own life and using it to relate to that character. He talked about the hardest role you could play, a parent who has lost their child. Although he had, fortunately, never experienced that, he told us how he had experienced losing people close to him in a terrible tragedy.
‘You take that,’ he said, ‘the blackest paint from your paintbox, and you remember when your whole life seemed painted in that colour. You go back and connect with those feelings again.’
That’s what it means to write what you know. The love you’ve known, the sorrow, the loss, the hope, the joy … write it all down and make it part of your stories.
Tolkien didn’t battle march into battle with elves and fight against ring wraiths. But he did know what it was like to march into battle, to know war and fear. Patricia Cornwell wasn’t a medical examiner, but she worked in a medical examiner’s office. J.K Rowling didn’t go to wizarding school, but she did know what it was like to feel lonely and lost.
Come Monday morning, which story do you tell best at the office: the one that happened to you Saturday morning, or the one you saw on Netflix Sunday night?