Write about something you DON'T know about. Go on. I dare you!

This post was so popular on Authors Electric earlier this week that I thought it would be worthwhile reblogging here, on my own blog, for anyone who might have missed it.

Many years ago, I was asked to judge a writing competition for local schools. I was never very sure – and neither were the schools apparently – whether the competition in question involved creative writing or factual non-fiction, but most years the subjects, set by a committee rather than by me, allowed the primary schools to be creative while demanding that the older kids were restricted to factual essays. Let’s leave aside for a moment the iniquities of restricting to non fiction those secondary pupils who might have wanted to write stories. But the younger children were at least allowed to indulge their imaginations. Supposedly.

The first year was a pleasure, albeit rather a mixed one. It was clear that either some kids were prodigies – which was possible, I suppose, but so many in such a small area? – or they had had considerable parental help. As a general rule, though, most of these beautifully constructed, highly polished efforts were lacking in imagination. Long before that person in the US banned the use of excellent words like ‘said’ these kids had got the message. People exclaimed or interjected. They bellowed and screeched. Nothing was ever simple and clear. But so much of it was as dull as the proverbial ditchwater. Duller, really. Ditchwater is generally teeming with life.

There were, however, one or two misshapen but beautiful pearls among the pebbles: little stories full of energy and imagination, stories about space-men and monsters, about dragons and unicorns, about witches and warlocks when Harry Potter was perhaps only a glimmer in J K Rowling’s fertile imagination. The handwriting may have been as erratic as the spelling but there was a vigour about these that it was impossible to fake or fault and one eight year old’s effort stood out above all the rest: imaginative, enthusiastic, engaging. I can’t now remember whether it was about monsters or pirates. Perhaps it was about monster pirates from space. All I know is, it was wonderful.

But at the prize giving, I became aware that I had chosen the wrong child. Oh, I didn’t regret it for an instant, and it was a popular choice with the audience. His mum and dad and granny and grandad and various aunties and uncles were there and it became clear that he wasn’t a child who normally won things. But the teachers didn’t look very happy and nor did the parents of the kids whose perfectly crafted efforts hadn’t reaped the expected rewards.

The following year, I was asked to judge the competition again. But this time, instead of all the entries, warts and scribbles and all, I was presented with a ‘final selection’ presumably made by the teachers: a dozen essays with very little imagination between them. I courteously declined to judge under those circumstances, and asked them to find somebody else to do it.

I’ve been thinking about all this recently, and wishing that whoever first told writers to ‘write about what they know about’ had been throttled with typewriter ribbon or possibly – since it must have been a long time ago - choked with a piece of parchment and buried at a crossroads with a quill pen through his heart.

I used to - mea culpa - give this advice myself. Then I varied it by saying ‘write what you know about but you know more than you think,’ which was better. Now, I think I’d say write what you don’t know about, but write with avid curiosity. Write to find out.  Research if you need to and then climb inside somebody else’s mind, visit other times, other places, other worlds, other lives.

Historical novelists do it all the time. I’ve never lived in 18th century Scotland unless it was in a previous life, but I’ve certainly been there. In fact I've spent years there. Those who write fantasy do it too. Has China Mieville ever 'known'  Railsea in the conventional sense – a world where water has been replaced by earth, where shipping routes have become a network of railway lines, and where strange and far from friendly creatures lurk beneath the surface? Biding their time? Well, perhaps in dreams but he sure knows how to tell us all about it. And once we've been there too, we'll never forget it.

Then there’s crime. Do all crime writers have to commit murder in order to write about what they know about? And science fiction. And adventure. All we need to know is what it is to be human. Or even, come to think of it, what it is to be not quite human, or even downright alien. We need imagination and bravery and empathy and the ability to visualise, to take the leap and lose ourselves in a world of our own creating. All you have to remember is that if you are going to build a new world, it has to work on its own terms; it has to be consistent, stick to its own rules, however strange those rules may seem. It's inconsistency not oddity that pulls readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Mieville's overlapping and mutually invisible cities in The City & The City may tie the reader's head in knots - but for me, every last word of the novel is enthralling and believable because it is entirely, mind-blowingly consistent, so even while you're enjoying the story, some part of you is admiring the brilliance of the concept as well.

Some years ago, I was attending a Scottish writers' conference where I was giving a workshop, when a novelist who was later to become a good friend, but whom I then didn’t know at all, walked off with pretty much all the prizes for fiction. I was sitting behind her and I remember in particular her winning YA novel, which, the judge told us, was about fairies. I wasn't the adjudicator, but as soon as the novel was described, as soon as some of it was read out, I could see why she had won. These were not fairies as Blyton would know them but the ancient Sithe – the ‘rebel angels’ of myth who inhabit a world parallel to ours but who can also move between the two. The books - a whole series - are imaginative, savage, sexy, exciting, and original, an evocation of worlds that seem at once familiar and surprising, often moving, always believable. The writer in question, Gillian Philip, went on to forge a very successful career. Among her many novels, the Rebel Angels series is published by Strident. If you haven’t read these, then I can recommend them, whether you’re a young adult or any kind of adult at all.  Begin with the extraordinary Firebrand, Book 1 in the series.

But whatever genre you want to write in, be bold and inventive. Write, in order to find out. Write about what obsesses you, even if you don't know much about it ... yet. Or about something you're immersed in, but want to look at from a completely different perspective.
In short, write what you want rather than what you know.
Go on. I dare you.

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