Writing what you do and don’t know

/Writing what you do and don’t know

Guest post by Ian McHugh

Something writers are often exhorted to do is “write what you know”. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your stories should reflect the literal truth of your lived experience, although they can. My first published story, “The Alchemical Automaton Blues” was basically a recounting of a real experience I had with some neighbours and their neglected dog, dressed up in fantasy drag. When I have kids in my stories, they tend to be my kids.

Writing what you know can also mean capturing some essential truth or belief, without presenting it in any context that corresponds to your lived experience. My story “The Navigator and the Sky” is about an old man using the last of his strength to help his granddaughter escape a wrathful god. The underlying truth of the story, for me, is the commitment that I believe parents should make to their kids.

But what about writing what you don’t know? There’s a fantastic talk at TED.com by Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, in which she talks about the experience of being pigeonholed by her ethnicity, the expectation that she will write Turkish stories, an expectation which she rejects. She stresses the value – the imperative, even – of writers stepping outside of what she refers to as their “cultural ghettoes” and exploring alternative ways of seeing the world. If you only ever write about yourself and your own little patch of the world, she argues, what do you learn?

In practice this is what writers in genres like science-fiction, fantasy and historical fiction do  – or should be doing – much of the time, but it applies more generally, too. If, say, you’re a crime writer and your characters are gangsters, but you’ve never been one yourself or even known any, you have to step outside your cultural ghetto to authentically realise those characters. If you’re writing a character with a completely different ethnic and religious background to yours, you have to step even further outside your cultural ghetto.

This is something I’ve had to wrestle with my novel project, in part because the participants in the Eureka Stockade came from such a range of European or European colonial backgrounds, but mainly in terms of my representation of non-European – Chinese and Aboriginal – characters. Both groups were peripheral to the rebellion on the goldfields, but both were present. My primary point-of-view character, Raffaello Carboni, supposedly spent several months in real life living with an Aboriginal tribe, before he went to Ballarat. In my story, that experience is a pivotal factor in his response to the looming rebellion. How do I represent these people whose culture and history is so different to my own – particularly given sensitivities around appropriation of Indigenous knowledge, culture and history? It seems a perilous business. What if I get it wrong?

But what’s the alternative? Write Aboriginal people out of the story? A kind of literary Terra Nullius? That seems a far worse crime.

The science fiction writer Terry Bisson has proposed 60 Rules for Short SF (and Fantasy). The last two of those are helpful here: “#59: Ignore these rules at your peril”; “#60: Peril is [your] accomplice, adversary and friend”. Yes, writing about people from or in another culture is a perilous business, even with good research and the best and most respectful intentions in the world. But if you only write within what you safely and comfortably know, you risk telling timid stories.

So, how do you sensibly take the risk?

Well, for me as a speculative fiction writer (in this case, alternate history) there’s an obvious shield to hide behind: I’m making stuff up. My indigenous culture is no more meant to be a true reflection of real-life Aboriginal culture than my “Church of the Green Christ” using Viking runes to harness geomancic energy and manufacture fairy dust is meant to be a true representation of the Church of England. They’re fictional analogues. But it’s only a partial shield – to function as analogues they still need to wear the trappings of authenticity. Ultimately it comes down to two things:

  1. Research. Do the work. Learn as much as you can. Read, lots. Find documentary videos. If you can, talk to people from the culture or group you’re seeking to represent.
  2. Research. Learn what the sensitivities might be. If you can, check what you think you know with someone who does know.

And then hope you’ve done a good job.

By | 2018-04-18T09:52:20+00:00 August 25th, 2014|Uncategorized|2 Comments


  1. Joanne McCarron 25th August, 2014 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for this. Really interesting. I like how you have elaborated the ‘write what you know’ idea, I think sometimes it is taken too literally and confuses or inhibits starting out writers but as you explain it can mean more than that or be dressed up. Very important point.

    I think you’re particularly right about capturing a person’s essential truth or belief in what is written without it necessarily corresponding to their lived experience. I’m a believer in feelings and emotions as the fundamental force to writing; as Robert Frost (I think) says ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’.

    I like the fun of exploring other worlds through writing, even though there are things to be sensitive to. But I agree with you, ‘…what’s the alternative? Write Aboriginal people out of the story? A kind of literary Terra Nullius?’ I think that’s really well said. Points 1 and 2 are excellent. that’s what I’d worked out/learned along the way but it’s nice to have it reaffirmed.

    I love your language – ‘Viking runes to harness geomancic energy and manufacture fairy dust’ – beautiful!

    Thanks again,

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