Writing Rules

Elmet, the novel by Fiona Mozley shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was not a priority on my reading list. Ben East’s interview with the author, published in Sunday’s edition of The National turned that around. Sometimes it happens that something you read resonates with you, as it did with me on this occasion. That something was to do with Fiona Mozley’s beliefs about writing.

Elmet cover

About rules

In our workshop, we often discuss the ‘rules’ that are put about on the subject of writing. My belief is that we have to know what those rules are … before we set about breaking them to suit our purpose. Rules become myths, and this interview with Fiona Mozley gently explodes one myth, which is ‘write what you know.’

Staring out of a train window while travelling from London to York, Mozley spied ‘a collection of caravans and shanty-like structures,’ and seeing these triggered, in her words, “a sense of wanting to explore something I didn’t know about, people who were very different from me.”

On writing what you know

If you don’t know what to write about, then writing what you know might be a good place to start. I’d say go ahead and write what you know when other people know nothing about that subject. You write. We read and understand. But, what if you wrote about something you didn’t know?

This makes me think of a workshop I attended one year at the Emirates Lit Fest. The subject was ‘Writing historical fiction’ and the participants were a mixture of fiction writers who knew very little about history (like me, for example), and historians who knew very little about writing fiction. A brilliant session in which we all learned a great deal. Then, one of the historians put up her hand and asked, ‘So, if we are writing about an historical figure and there are gaps in our research, and we don’t know what actually happened, what happens then?’ The fiction writers gasped.

We all knew that when you don’t know something … you make it up.

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