A Cloud of Unknowing

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are “known knowns”; there are things we know we know. We also know there are “known unknowns”; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also “unknown unknowns” - the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld

Write what you know. It is one of the best-known pieces of writing advice and also one of the most contentious. Too often people interpret it as meaning one should only write stories rooted in one’s own life experience.

As a young man, I worried about this. I thought I’d seen too little of the world and wouldn’t be able to write realistic stories. It stalled my writing career as I waited to reach that mythical point when I’d done something worth writing about.

Years later, when I finally put pen to paper, I rebelled against this need for life experience. After all, none of us have encountered fire-breathing dragons and most crime writers haven’t committed a murder (at least I hope not). The important thing was that I could imagine interesting characters and exciting plots even if my life seemed mundane by comparison.

Yet one can go too far just relying on imagination. Even in the most outlandish fictional scenarios, there are always touches of reality. This is a large part of what helps people connect to your story and, if these details don’t ring true, they will drag readers out of the fantasy. Luckily, I can access all the amazing resources on the internet, making research so much easier (I wonder if having it earlier would have given me more confidence to start writing).

There are times though when reading is not enough and only first-hand experience will do. At one point I tried writing a novel set in New York, a city I’d only visited briefly, decades earlier. I thought would use all the resources of the internet and ask my friends who lived there to help me fill in some details later. Yet, within days, I realised that the story and my characters were flat. I struggled on for a while, but the story wouldn’t come to life. A few years later, I started another novel in the same setting. However, I’d just spent a month living in New York and writing this story was a completely different experience. Everything came to life as all the little details of my experience informed my characters’ actions and interactions. The little touches of reality I added acted as an anchor for the things that only existed in my imagination.

So did this make me a convert to the school of write what you know? Not really. As with so many cliches, it has become inseparable from a meaning that is bigger than those four words. It still makes me feel like I’m being told to write something autobiographical.

Instead I have learnt to recognise my limits better. When I plan a new story, there will always be things I don’t know. I need to identify those I can learn and those I can make up successfully. However, sometimes I will discover too many “unknown unknowns” which leave a hole I cannot fill. In these instances, I must remember that not every author is equipped to write every story.

I won’t limit myself to writing about my own experiences because those would be very dull stories. However, I will always make the effort to get to know what I write.

May your adventures be full
of mystery and magic



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