author, banker, Fatal Forgery, financial crime, magistrate, police, Regency, Samuel Plank, The Man in the Canary Waistcoat
One of the most popular pieces of advice given to writers is to write what you know. I can see the wisdom in this; after all, these days I find myself writing almost exclusively about financial crime, whether it is modern money laundering or historical fraud. (I should clarify that this doesn’t mean that I know about these things because I do them – I know about them because I think a lot about how to prevent them.) But surely the joy of escapism that comes with fiction is for the author as well as the reader.
Take my Plank novels, for instance. They are about magistrates and police officers and lawyers, of whom I have known – and continue to know – many. They are set in London, which I know reasonably well. And the first one – “Fatal Forgery” – centred on a bank, which is a species of financial institution with which I am very familiar. But beyond that, well, I’m off into the unknown (or at least, the initially unknown – days of research usually put paid to my innocent status pretty sharpish). Beyond reading all of Jane Austen and some of Georgette Heyer, I didn’t know much about the Regency period – but being a contrary sort of person, I felt that the Georgians, Victorians and above all the Tudors (saints preserve us from yet more tomes about the Tudors) had been done to death, and the 1820s are just so perfect for financial crime and nascent detectives. I didn’t know much about the prison system back then – particularly the frankly bizarre treatment of debtors (basically, lock them up until they pay off their debt, but because they’re locked up they can’t earn any money – see “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat”, and weep). And on a personal note, I didn’t know much about spending a marriage longing for children who don’t arrive; I never wanted the little blighters myself, but I have a couple of friends in this situation and was able to talk to them about it.
To be honest, a book based purely on my own experiences would actually be quite interesting, as I have had a (let’s be charitable) varied upbringing and (ditto) colourful family life. But it would be interesting only for the reader – not for me, the writer, because I’ve been through it all once already. So I’m sorry but we’re going to have to compromise on this, and stick with stories that allow me to comfort you with some genuine knowledge while entertaining myself with some exploration and discovery.
Roy McCarthy said:
Susan I think that ‘write what you know’ is about the silliest advice ever handed out. Sure, you must start from a sound base but unless you take your characters into territory (physically or otherwise) unfamiliar to themselves or the writer you will end up with a one-dimensional work. Your study of the Regency period is a perfect example.
I must be the world’s most hopeless artist but I got a lot of pleasure out of placing one of my early characters in the same position and having her learn from scratch, discovering new aspects of art, new skills, as she grew in competence. It developed the character slowly as my own knowledge developed.
Research is one of the author’s most valuable tools.
I tend to agree, Roy. Where I do prefer to stay with what I know is the language – or rather, the tone. I am quite good at “proper English”, as I read a lot of it and was taught in a rigorous (even old-fashioned) manner. If I tried to write a teenage novel, or one filled with local dialect, it would sound very forced, as I am rarely exposed to this sort of language (except on the telly, which imposes its own level of “falseness” on it).
As for research, I would happily research forever and never write another word – it’s addictive!
Best wishes from Susan