Write What You Don’t Know

The Arts

Writers are allowed to make shit up.

What made me decide to set one of my first short stories in New York, when at that point I hadn’t been to America? It felt right for the tale but I got the details wrong. Luckily a good editor bailed me out and made it more authentic. ‘Write what you know’ is terrible advice, since many young broke writers don’t know a lot, so their stories are too often set in schools, at home with parents, on public transport or just walking around, and they’re prosaic.

But books are limited only by your imagination and can be unfettered by research that uncovers extraordinary details about the world we live in. An old friend began her novel with a man sitting on a brandy barrel on the prow of a ship, watching the coast approach. Then we discover that Dr Polidori is sitting on the body of his patient, Lord Byron, pickled in brandy.

It’s a terrific image that she (the author) stumbled across, but she failed to find a publisher for the book, which was a wonderful read, yet every tale of a single mother seeking closure with her dying father seems to be published because they’re ‘relatable’. I care little for relatable material – I admire disruption. I’m happier leaving the prosaic behind and exploring the surreal.

It’s remarkable how many novels are now rooted down with appearances from real people. Did ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ need to be about Abraham Lincoln? As far as I could tell, not remotely, as the terrible grief of a lost child is universal. But it seems many readers don’t trust writers unless they add a strong real-life element. This is partly because it’s a lot easier to get festival space and press coverage for a non-fiction book.

When HG Wells wrote ‘War of the Worlds’ he had no experience of a Martian invasion, but he understood the fear of an unknown enemy. Mary Renault’s vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato, and Alexander the Great somehow feel right although of course they probably aren’t, any more than Robert Harris’s Cicero is right or Marguerite Yourcenar’s ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ has verisimilitude. Is Hilary Mantel doggedly following historical minutiae in her ‘Wolf Hall’ books, or is she imagining Thomas Cromwell’s life and filling in the parts she doesn’t – and cannot – know?

In fact Ulfela – the original Domesday Book name for Wolf Hall, is irrelevant in the Cromwell story and was chosen to evoke the idea that man is a wolf to others.

I developed an allergy to heartwarming tales of self-development because at school I was bombarded with perversely surreal words and images. We loved Monty Python because it not only horrified our parents but they couldn’t understand its odd, disruptive, callous attitude. Brophy, Ballard, BS Johnson, Orton, Antrobus and others were in our libraries, on stage and in cinemas. I remember seeing the post-apocalyptic ‘The Bed Sitting Room’ with its escalator leading through a field of smashed teacups to the submerged dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and knew that these were stories of dream-logic, ideas, proclamations and issues, not kitchen-sink tales of single mums and dying fathers.

We weren’t content to be fascinated with our own internal lives – which probably explains my hatred of the selfie – but wanted to look around outside. And outside there were places and people we had no experience of. It didn’t matter, because there’s another rule; writers are allowed to make shit up. Hilary Mantel did not need to be told about the behaviour of men. The truths she applies to her stories may come from her imagination but have the ring of authenticity.


8 comments on “Write What You Don’t Know”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    Anthony Burgess allegedly (he told a lot of porkies) had “Professional liar” as his occupation in his passport.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Adults were mystified by Gumbys.
    My favourite film was One Way Pendulum.
    When I read about the Seventy Seven Clocks, I was rather hoping that Arthur was creating an orchestra.

  3. admin says:

    That’s hilarious. I’d rather Arthur had created an orchestra…

  4. Ian Luck says:

    My late mother never ‘got’, and subsequently hated, Monty Python. My father, on the other hand, loved it, and, if it was on, and mum was out, let me watch it. A few years before she died, my brother, who, like me, loves Monty Python – if I say to him ‘Hank and Roy Spim’, he will immediately say, in an Australian accent:
    “I love animals, that’s why I like to kill ’em” – made mum watch ‘The Parrot Sketch’. And she, to her surprise, found it funny, and laughed at it. And that’s the odd thing. I can remember her crying with laughter at episodes of the similarly surreal show ‘The Goodies’, and she enjoyed the proto-Python show (supposedly for children), ‘Please Do Not Adjust Your Set’. I can remember seeing episodes of ‘At Last The 1948 Show’ (misremembering fragments of it as Python sketches), with both parents laughing at it. But she couldn’t stand ‘Full-fat’ Monty Python. I showed my niece some Gumby sketches when she was about four. She thought they were hilarious, which is the right answer. I showed my nephew the ‘Killer Cars’ animation, and ‘The Fish Slapping Dance’ when he was about four. Yup. He laughed, too.
    I hate Football with a passion, but were anyone to ask me my favourite Monty Python sketch, it would be the ‘Philosophy Football’ sketch from the ‘Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkuss’ episode. Other favourite bits come from their records: ‘The Trondheim Hammer Dance’, where: “The old ladies are hit about the head with the small hammers…” The incredibly convoluted ‘Story So Far’ interlude on the ‘Holy Grail’ soundtrack, and the description of items available from the salespeople in the cinema foyer: “Sweets, Icecreams, Dubbin, and Broken glass”, and how to deal with a church coming up the garden path, which has Graham Chapman alliteratively deconstructing world religions: “Shintoists shattering sheetglass in the shi…” Perfect.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I sometimes tried to read too much into Monty Python sketches but just laughing was usually the best response. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” I’m just finishing Iain Banks’ Raw Spirits and find that Python figured largely in his youth and, like many people here, he is still able to “do” whole sketches. (He was also lucky enough to be at university when the Holy Grail was filming and was in some mob scenes along with other mad men from Stirling.) The best thing about Monty Python is that it doesn’t really date and the humour is what it was when it was produced. We had to translate it in our heads at first, of course.

  6. Ken Mann says:

    …and while you’re busy writing what you don’t know I would add that “tell don’t show” has its place too.

  7. Eliz Amber says:

    Helen Martin wrote: ‘The best thing about Monty Python is that it doesn’t really date and the humour is what it was when it was produced.’ So true – whether I’m with boomers, x-ers or the younger set, everyone gets it when someone says, ‘But I’m not dead!’. My mum loved Python, too.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Some of the most interesting and fun writing has always been about that which it’s authors CANNOT possibly know anything – Science Fiction (I know some is based on hard science, but even that teeters on the edge of ‘possibility’, as the facts are eased into an entertaining narrative), and Fantasy. A surprisingly good starting point to see just how far you can go with a completely fantastical idea is the 1968 Doctor Who story, ‘The Mind Robber’. The TARDIS makes an emergency landing, and appears to be stuck in a void of nothing and nowhere. The crew are chased by life-size clockwork soldiers, and encounter Lemuel Gulliver, who they discover, is only able to converse with dialogue written for him by Jonathan Swift. The TARDIS has materialized in ‘The Land Of Fiction’. Anything is possible – and it got the makers of the show out of a big problem. During filming, Fraser Hines, who played companion Jamie, caught chickenpox, and had to stay at home. However, as Jamie featured a lot in this story, something utterly fantastic was done. In the story, Jamie is reduced to a lifesize cardboard standee without a face. The puzzle is set that if the Doctor can stick the correct facial features of Jamie to the standee, then he’ll be restored to life. Of course, the Doctor gets it wrong, and so, for two episodes, a totally different actor, Hamish Wilson (who is very good in the role, by the way), plays Jamie, until he’s restored back. And the best thing? They were making the story up as they went along, as another had fallen through, and there was a five episode gap. And the story is one of the most highly regarded of all Doctor Who serials, ever. Not bad for a team who were making a story and not knowing what it was about until they had finished. The result is one of the strangest Doctor Who stories you’ll ever see – and it’s clever, endlessly creative, showing what can be donevwith a limited budget, and endless imagination, and full of nice surreal touches – a forest, not of trees, but of huge wooden letters that spell out a message, for example. Well worth some of your time.

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