Monday, May 16, 2016

Not Writing What You Know

I was interested to read John's post, Honest Writing. Like him, my background is in schools. In fact, until my husband retired I had spent all my life in schools, apart from four years off for good behaviour when I was at University.

In fact, I am contemplating applying for a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest number of school prize-givings attended. My father was a headmaster so when I was at school myself I went to my own, and his. Then I taught, and went to my own. When I married, my husband was a teacher so again I went to my own, and his. I had children – one prize-giving apiece – plus my husband's (I was, at least, a stay-at-home mom by that time which spared me a fourth every summer); then he became headmaster in a three-stage school, each part of which had its own prize-giving, and there were still the children's too. Once the children left school, there were fewer though we were still frequently invited to other schools' prize-givings, sometimes as guests, sometimes to give speeches. Even today, we still often go back for the end of term at my husband's old school. Anyone want to challenge me for the title?

So I can certainly say I'm familiar with school life!  But unlike John, I've never been tempted to set a book in a school. I'm not sure why, because as John said, all the right ingredients are there.

 I very seldom  choose to read a book with a school background, usually because of my previous experience of books where the writer isn't doing John's 'honest writing'; they're inventing what they think a school would be like and I just feel irritated (I often cringe when a policeman tells me he's read one of my books.) 

Perhaps I just feel it would all be too close to home, that I know too much about schools and I know too many teachers. How could I create a fictional school that wasn't too like the schools I have lived in? And I couldn't bring myself to fictionalise real people I had known for the same reasons as I discussed in a previous post about not using someone's life experience, but it would be very tempting. I might even be  drawn into using them unconsciously and then find myself being sued for libel.

Indeed, I'm such a coward about this that I invented a whole police force so that I wouldn't inadvertently create a character in a real force, a police sergeant, say, who was deeply unpleasant, had a wart on his nose and was called Wilson, only to find that thee was a sergeant in that very force who answered the description.

For me, I think, writing what I know means, yes, writing about something I'm familiar with, but at one remove. I need a bit of distance for perspective.

How do the rest of you feel?


Carvinglady said...

Interesting, although I'm not a writer it's good to know how authors decide what to write about.

Aline Templeton said...

Thanks, Mary Jane. I'm never quite sure I decide what to write - all too often it feels as if it's been decided for me!