‘Write What You Know’

Today I upload Chapter Five in the continuing serialisation of ‘The Door to Caellfyon‘ my debut novel aimed at the nine to eleven-year age group.

I’ve already revealed elsewhere on this site those things that have inspired the writing of this tale. However, there has been far more than just literary influences poured into each page.

Every writing guide you care to imagine counsels authors to ‘write what you know’. Whilst this suggestion is open-ended I believe the emphasis is on experience and emotions. There are, therefore, many examples where this ‘outpouring’ occurs in my book.

In this post I’ll reveal two, in which my characters reveal their own life-experiences and sentiments relating to the events taking place in the tale. In each case, the voices are those of my characters. The testimonies and emotions, however, are mine.

In the first, the main protagonist, Levi, explains his sorrow at having to kill an enemy:

Levi stopped and turned to his sister.

‘I suppose Deepdale told you I killed someone – back in the marsh.’ Poppy shook her head. She was about to reply when Levi continued. ‘It was horrible. Didn’t have time to think on it then – but it’s bugged me since.’

‘You probably had good cause,’ Poppy replied lamely, unable to think of the right words that would console her brother.

Levi stared out at the small field adjoining the woods. Several yards away, in the midst of the field, four badgers hunched over their hoes, singing as they weeded between neat rows of bright green shoots. The words of their song were indistinct, snatched away by the breeze.

‘Remember last time we visited Aunt Eve up in Northumberland?’ said Levi, turning back to his sister. ‘You and Dad stayed inside while I went out into the yard. A cat had caught a robin – it was playing with it, the hateful creature. Tossing it and bowling the poor thing over and over. I chased the stinkin’ cat away. But the robin lay there, its feathers all ragged like. One wing was broken. A tiny drop of blood oozed from one of its nostrils – I’d never noticed birds’ nostrils ‘til then.’

Poppy watched sadly as tears pooled in the bottom of her brother’s eyes. But she knew she couldn’t interrupt him – felt this was something he had to say.

‘The bird was done for – I could tell that,’ continued Levi. ‘But I couldn’t leave it, see? So I fetched a brick. A big house brick, the ones with three holes in. And as I brought it down as hard as I could onto the robin, it squeaked – really loud. Louder than any noise you’d expect a little bird to make.’

But you had to do it,’ said Poppy, reaching for his hand. ‘“Cruel to be kind,” some might say.’

‘But I can still hear that squeak. I heard it when I killed the mink – oh, he died without a sound, but as he slid into the swamp it was the poor robin’s cry that filled my whole head.’

There was nothing Poppy could say that might cheer her brother. She wanted to tell him that he had no choice – with either the robin or the mink. One had been an act of kindness, while the other was self-defence. While the statement would be true she knew it wouldn’t serve to pull Levi from his anguish. Instead, she plucked a handkerchief from her smock pocket and handed it to him.

It was I that killed the robin when I, too, was a young teenager and yes, it did squeak. It was one of those life-events that burns onto the memory. It is experiences such as this that provide an author with a near endless source of material and is the true interpretation of the ‘write what you know’ principle.

In the second example, Levi’s sister, Poppy, gives comfort to one of the villagers. Here again I called on my own experience in creating the scene:

Despite the poor light, Levi saw the old badger tremble with passion.

‘Now listen, young fuff-feller,’ said Bullyrag, addressing the brawny blacksmith. ‘First thing I did here were buh-bury me old mum – even afore I huh-had a roof o’er my head. And I’m not leavin’ her.’

Poppy had heard enough. She stepped determinedly into the hall.

‘Leave it, Pop,’ said Levi as he made a vain grab for her arm.

Undeterred, Poppy sauntered over to Bullyrag, her ponytail switching. The old badger’s eyes were frosted with tears as Poppy gently laid a hand on Bullyrag’s chest. An expectant hush filled the hall.

‘This is where your mum is,’ she said. ‘In your heart. Not some cold old grave in a garden.’ She lifted her free hand to her own chest. ‘My mum’s in here, too,’ she added, with a wobble in her voice.

Levi swallowed, trying to free the lump that had suddenly risen to his throat.

These then are a couple of examples from the story in which I tried to adhere to two main mantras of fiction writing. These are:

  • Write what you know
  • Show, don’t tell

Whilst I did search for the door that inspired the story (Background to a Tale), I have no experience of travel to another dimension, nor in fighting four-foot tall polecats armed with swords.

However, I have been able to call on a well-spring of life-knowledge and emotional familiarity. These, together with imagination a-plenty have been the resources for this, my first novel. That said, perhaps the write what you know mantra should be changed – or at the least, clearly defined.

I think [Write What You Know] is very bad advice. Very few people know enough to make an exciting story, and very few people can escape the clotted and overcrowded prose that usually results. But “Write what you feel” is good advice—if you’ve ever been scared or worried or angry or ecstatic, for instance, recall those feelings and blow them up to suit the exaggerated needs of your plot.

Lee Child

I don’t believe my own tale to be autobiographical in any way, but I’m sure a fiction writer cannot fail but to impart even a hint of him – or her-self onto the pages. Consequently I’m unable to read this tale without feeling the same sentiments as my characters.

When Levi relates his account of the poor robin, he is telling just part of my own life-story. Similarly, Poppy assures the old badger that, no matter where he may be, his mother will always be in his heart – just as I too know my own late mum is in mine.

Chapter Five, is now available on here. To view, access the appropriate menu tab or, for a downloadable PDF file, click here.

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