Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 29 October 2012

Write What You Know...

That’s what they tell you... That seems to be the generally received wisdom for new writers, except that, in my experience, new writers are young and don’t know diddly squat. I didn’t begin writing in earnest until I was in my forties and I didn’t know diddly squat.

Besides, you won’t learn anything by writing what you already know, and where’s the fun in that?

I don’t know who said it, but I imagine the reason to think it’s a good idea to write what you know is that it’s tough to write, so it’s not a bad idea to make it easier, and I get that. To write a novel, for example, takes months or even years, and considerable mental stamina, so is it a good idea, in the first instance, to begin with unfamiliar subject matter? Maybe not.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters in the slightest whether you write what you know. I think what really matters is that you write what you feel... that you write what you must.

My first novel was, thematically, about something I thought I knew a good deal about, but I gave it an SF setting, introduced a lot of stuff about maths that I had to learn, had a key character on the Autistic spectrum that gave me plenty to research, and lo and behold all the thematic stuff changed when the very process of writing the novel adjusted my thinking. It was a great experience, a real pleasure and a lovely way to learn something new about myself. I don’t know if you’ll ever read Savant, but it’s a book I’m still proud of, and a great beginning.

Writing is a transformative experience, for me at least. Whatever I know when I begin a project might alter entirely by the time I’ve finished, my opinions might change, and I’m almost bound to learn a great deal along the way. I might only learn a lot of facts, but, more than once, I’ve learned things about life, about how I feel about things, about the way my mind works, about how to write better.

In the end, perhaps we always write what we know, but, here’s the thing: The more we write, the more we learn, and, with any luck, the better we get at this. I certainly hope that’s true, because I’m about to put Naming Names out into the world, and then I’m embarking on The Winter Lamb, and everything I’ve learned about being a writer is going to be very useful when it comes to writing that book... very useful indeed.


  1. I've always taken the "write what you know" recommendation as applying more to emotions, states of mind, and human interactions. Those can be hard to write about credibly, unless you've been there yourself. As for more material information, I agree with you – it's stretching for a writer to research and learn something new.

    Great post.

  2. I'll admit, my own perception regarding my lack of knowledge or skills in writing (mostly from lack of putting fingers to keys) has put me off writing sometimes. but then I think about all the research I've done already on some of the things I plan to touch on I realise that I've already learned so much that I never would have had I not even considered the possibility of writing about it.

    of course now I have more time up my sleeves, it's the perfect opportunity to get cracking!

  3. I most definitely stick to writing what I know. I've been doing martial arts for 20 odd years, been in the Specials, been in the OTC, been fired at in a 'friendly fire' incident by what I can only term as a 'stupid bitch', worked the doors, body guarded, seen a number of dead people, kicked down doors and rescued maidens and a whole load of other more boring things. But, all of those skills and experiences (no matter how much I might want to forget some), all add to my writing. I just need to get better and putting them down onto paper.