An Edgar Allan Poe Award nominee for her mystery fiction, Janice Law has always also written mainstream novels and stories, so her perspective on fiction writing is wide. She has taught writing, and she blogs regularly on Janice Law, writer, and as a guest on SleuthSayers. She joins us today with some reflections on the old adage “Write what you know.” Her latest novel is The Fires of London. —Janet Hutchings
One of the cliches of the writing business, and standard advice for young writers, is write what you know. This is simply good sense, ignorance not being bliss in the writing game. The problem is that writing what you know is often construed too narrowly. If we only wrote what we knew, there would be a lot fewer spy novels and torrid romances. Many a cowboy would never leave the corral, and fairy princesses and Middle-earth types would be thin on the ground.
Fortunately, we need never worry that a lack of personal experience is going to curtail our favorite genres. Writers not only write what they know but to discover what they want to know, and, in the case of certain minds, to discover what they think but haven’t verbalized. Yet, write what you know remains good advice. Writers just need to discover connections between what they know for sure of sounds, smells, sights, emotions, and what they do not know for sure or know only at second hand.
This is the job of the imagination, and like other facets of writing, it improves with practice and with sacrifices to the Muse in the form of long hours at the keyboard or the writing desk. It also requires an alert recognition of potential interest even in areas outside one’s comfort zone.
I’ve been thinking about this, as my latest novel, The Fires of London, represents an interesting balance of what I know, what I decided to discover, and what, subconsciously—or gift of the Muse, take your pick—had been lurking in the back of my mind. The novel is a category mystery—the first I’ve written in a number of years—so that was familiar ground.
It’s set in London during the Blitz. I’m old, but not ancient enough to remember the Battle of Britain, but some of my earliest memories are of my parents packing up big parcels of coffee, chocolate, woolens, even garden seeds to ship back to Scotland, and of the anxiety that accompanied every news broadcast. I was too small to understand the battle reports, but for years I had a deep distaste for listening to radio news.
As for the details of the battle and the duties of an ARP warden, which my hero was going to be, these fell into the things-to-be-discovered category, a category easier now with the many WWII websites. I’d also done research in the same period for an earlier novel and still remembered a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London. So far, so good.
The sticking point, at least initially, was my hero and the raison d’être for the book: Francis Bacon. No, not the Tudor figure of scientific-method fame and putative ghostwriter for Shakespeare, but the twentieth-century Anglo-Irish Francis Bacon, a gay, promiscuous, alcoholic, genius painter.How are we different? Let me count the ways!
Here, discovery came to my assistance. Biographer Michael Peppiatt has written two fine books on the painter. I was much attracted by his account of the artist’s life, although at first there seemed to be nothing in the “what I know” category. Bacon was on his own from the time he was sixteen and caught trying on his mother’s underwear. He was sent off to Germany with what proved to be a “funny uncle” and shortly abandoned in Berlin to earn his living as best he could as a rent boy.
Amazingly resilient, he got himself to Paris, where his family had some fancy connections, and, thanks to a series of artistic lovers, he acquired the rudiments of oil painting and support to set himself up as a furniture designer. It wasn’t until I considered one of the key relationships in his life, his love for his ruthlessly devoted old nanny, that I found the passage from what I know to what I’d have to imagine. I must thank Bacon’s Nan for the resulting novel.
I grew up downstairs on a big upstairs/ downstairs estate, and the close, and conflicted, ties between children and their nannies was something I had observed closely. I thought I could understand Nan, though the domestics I knew were far more respectable than Bacon’s nanny, who vetted his paid companions and went shoplifting, despite being half blind, when they were on their uppers.
Still, one takes what one can get in the knowledge line. And then, despite his hard drinking and boisterous living and his fondness for rough trade and dubious types like the infamous Kray brothers, the real Bacon was a hard-working painter, up and busy in his studio first thing in the morning. He had a strong work ethic—and I guess an overwhelming need for the structure that art gave an otherwise rackety life.
As a long time writer and painter, I felt I had enough of a handle on his personality to begin a novel and see if discoveries in both the library and the subconscious would be sufficient. They were. And this is both delightful and—sometimes—a bit startling. It is always surprising which characters write easily. An extremely timid and peaceable personality, I am sometimes taken aback by the ease with which literary homicide surfaces in the little stories I write for EQMM and its sister publication AHMM, among others (and collected recently in Blood in the Water from Wildside).
My Francis developed very nicely with a minimum of fuss. Even his rather gaudy sex life did not prove the obstacle that I feared it might. His story got to 60 pages, then 120, and then on to novel length. I stuck fairly close to the events of his life, except for involving him in a murder investigation, and I tried to be accurate with the details of his milieu and of his friends.
Of course, at some point, probably rather early on, my Francis parted company with his historical inspiration. He became, as he had to, a character in a novel not personality analyzed in a biography. I suspect he is a bit nicer than the original and probably not as imaginative—who, after all, can conjure genius?
But I know what it feels like to face an empty canvas and to dream of images, and I discovered enough to understand a little corner of the horrors of the Blitz and of the terrible accidents occasioned by the Blackout. As the book developed, I grew acquainted with the smell of brick and stone dust and burning districts. I became familiar with bombed-out streets and death from the air via a variety of sinister weapons and with black-out regulations and fire-watching. I experienced these the writerly way, as a compound of reality and imagination, of what I knew and what I could discover.
I hung it all on the ever-flexible mystery framework, had Francis unluckily stumble over both a corpse and a seriously bent copper, and then, since I never plot out a novel and would be too bored to finish it if I did, waited to see what would happen. The Fires of London was the result.