I just read a quite interesting guest post on Kate M. Colby’s blog, by one Fia Essen. The topic of the post is “Write What You Know”. Essen talks about how her own experiences have inspired her to write about women quite like herself, in similar life circumstances, and how it made for good books (I haven’t read her books, so I’ll take her word for it; but the excerpt posted on Amazon looks not bad).
It’s a good post, and a good piece of advice – one that I have followed in my own writing. Seventh Son is, as you know, about a woman named Cat who looks into a blue pottery bowl and gets whirled off into a magical medieval world. And that, of course, is what… umm… happens to me on an… uh… regular basis? Right. Maybe that piece of advice does break down when you’re dealing with Fantasy. I’m quite sure Tolkien was not intimately acquainted with hobbits, and his personal experience with battling orcs was probably somewhat limited, too.
However, there’s still a lot of truth to this, even if you’re writing about magical faraway places. Because people are always people, and in order for readers to get into your story, your people have to be believable people. So Cat is, magical dimension-travel aside, pretty much me. Or at least she was in the first book. Seventh Son started from this basic premise: if I was suddenly thrown into another world (à la the Pevensie kids in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), how would I react? I’d freak out, that’s how. So that’s what Cat does. She has a fit. And then she tries to cope with the situation in the best way she knows how – by trying to be rational about it, and calling up all the bits and pieces of information she’s garnered in the course of her career as librarian and avid reader.
But there’s even more of me that’s in that book than Cat’s personality and voice. I gave Guy, the potter, my own pottery wheel, and my own pottery technique, the one I learned at the local art centre almost ten years ago. See, that’s it in the picture. My man built it for me for my birthday the year I finally learned to throw pots on the wheel (one item scratched off the bucket list). Guy, being a professional, has a metal wheelhead with concentric grooves cut into it – for my amateurish throwing a wooden one does the job. Also, he doesn’t have plastic ice cream buckets sitting on the bench for his water and clay slurry, of course; his are old pots or maybe tin buckets. But other than that, this is it. If you go to Chapter 14 in Seventh Son, you get the exact description of how to make pottery on a kick wheel like this one.
In Cat and Mouse, Cat learns to make sourdough bread, and ink made from black walnut husks. And yes, I’ve done both of those things; they work. You can pretty much follow the instructions in the book to get bread and/or ink. Also, most of the technologies, recipes and remedies in my stories are ones that could have been used in the European Middle Ages. The climate and landscape of Isachang, the land I tossed Cat into, is more or less Central Europe – because that’s the place I’m familiar with. So yes, I write what I know.
I do make up the occasional fact, or plant, for that matter – for example, the spikeberry bush which is important in Cat and Mouse is my own invention. It kind of appeared in the pages of Seventh Son early on, just because I needed something to fill out the visuals of the scene when Cat arrives in the Wald of Ruph, and then it came in handy when I needed a plant that would have a particular medicinal effect for the climax of Cat and Mouse. But for the most part, everything in my stories is real, even for this world.
So, “Write What You Know” still holds true even for places and times far removed from your own. Tolkien may not have been personally acquainted with any hobbits, but there is a great deal of him in the hobbits, from their love of a pipe smoking to their appreciation of creature comforts (no one who wasn’t a lover of good food could have written the Hobbiton parties like he did), not to mention how Bilbo feels about foolish and unnecessary adventuring to start with.
Life, the Universe, and Writing What You Know. One of these days Cat is going to make soap.