We are always told that we should write what we know. To an extent, that is true, but those who are writing murder mysteries, for example, are hardly likely to start poisoning/bludgeoning/shooting their nearest and dearest in the name of research. As a reader, though, you want to feel as though the writer really understands his subject, with the kind of expertise that seems so natural that it never shows.
Most of us, if we are honest, have experienced, even at the mildest level, the emotions that can, when taken to extreme and pathological levels, lead to such acts. Being human, we have every human emotion in our library of experience, even if some of them are gleaned through immersion in book or film, or experienced through dream. Even if we have to draw upon them and take them far beyond our own experience, we have a starting point in a reality with which we are familiar. We can write from what we know ourselves, even if we know only the edges or the fleeting shadows of such emotions.
I read an article by a fellow writer on a subject that plays a part in their work. It was well written, well presented, clear and accurate in its facts. The research had evidently been done but had, quite understandably from the writerly perspective, stopped when the need for facts to fit the work was fulfilled. Nothing at all wrong with that.
But as a reader, it left me snarling. Having worked with what was being written about for years, I know that what was portrayed was as two-dimensional as a child’s cardboard cut-out when compared to the reality.
For me, the problem was in the way that article portrayed the writer as having enough expertise in the subject to feel able to share it. What was written was presented as knowledge… which was true in as far as it went. It was accurate. What was lacking was any real understanding of what the writer was writing about; which meant that it was about as far from the truth as you can get.
Accuracy belongs to knowledge, truth comes from understanding… and understanding comes with experience.
For some reason… for it was a totally different subject… it reminded me of when I had landed myself a job as a transport manager in heavy haulage. I had no qualifications, no knowledge other than several years driving a white van and no experience of running a fleet of vehicles.
My boss worked on the principle that whatever he wanted done, the lads would have to find a way to do. He knew how wide the lorries were, what the reach of the hiab cranes were and, theoretically, how long it would take to get from A to B. But he lacked any practical experience and the jobs he planned invariably went wrong. He tried to cram too many jobs into each day, the drivers resented what they were asked to do, phoned in at the slightest hiccough and were inflexible in their approach. Every day, at least one of his jobs had to be carried over to the next, leaving the drivers under increasing pressure from the snowball effect and the customers understandably disgruntled.
I started staying behind after hours and coming in at weekends, on my own time, to learn about the job. I learned, by getting behind the wheel in the yard, about the difficulties of manoeuvering forty-odd tonnes and sixty-odd feet of articulated vehicle. The lads were happy to teach me. I learned too how to use the hiab cranes… how the ‘portable’ buildings they lift swing in the wind, how dangerous overhead cables can be and how limited even the most precise operator is by the environment and weather in which they are working. I even learned how to position and plumb-in the mobile washroom blocks.
I already understood from my white van days, that the distance even the best electronic map can give bears no relationship to the time a drive will take in, say, central London, where a mile can take an hour or more to travel. Or that twenty miles of country lane takes as long for an articulated lorry as sixty miles of motorway. And while I was about it, I got to know the men who drove the lorries; I learned about their families, their hobbies, their lives and how to take that particular lorry-driver humour and give it back with good measure.
The modicum of understanding I had gleaned by rolling up both proverbial and literal sleeves made all the difference. Even though I had barely scratched the surface of their expertise, the result was a real and mutual respect. I made sure the jobs were do-able and the lads worked miracles for me; they never, ever let me down on a job, even the most bizarre and we had plenty of those.
As a reader, I want at least the illusion of that same commitment from a writer. Knowledge is no more than theory and it is not until you put it into practice, in some way at least, that you have any hope of approaching an understanding of the reality.
So what can you do when you have to write about something that is completely outside your ken? Facts are a good place to start… but research widely, both theoretical and subjective accounts if you can. Don’t just stick to one perspective. Try and relate to what it is that you are learning about at a personal level or, if it is feasible, experience it for yourself.
If you are writing about an artist, for example, pick up a paintbrush, put your hands in oil paint, feel the texture of a canvas with fingertip and bristle… smell that magical combination of copal varnish and turpentine. You don’t have to be a Rembrandt, just apply paint… and whatever the result on canvas, you will have true subjective understanding of the process.
There are things, though, for which every writer will have to use the ultimate tool…imagination. And that too is a place where experience can be gained if we are prepared to immerse ourselves for a moment in the emotions our minds can conjure.
Readers are people too and they are neither blind nor credulous. There is a subtle difference between drawing upon abstracted experience… as you might if writing a murder mystery where you would learn about forensics, anatomy, and psychology as well as reading real-life accounts… and presenting cardboard facts as reality. Weave the imagined experience around the facts until they take on a life of their own. But don’t, for goodness sake, present just the facts without working with them and bringing them to life for you, even if only in imagination.
‘Expert’ and ‘experience’ share the same etymology for a reason.