Writing a world you don’t know

You’ve probably heard the writing advice “Write what you know.” It’s one of the first maxims handed out to would-be novelists. And there’s a seductive logic to it – if you’re writing a world you know intimately, you can immediately put aside concerns about research and authenticity and just get on with crafting the story.

But there comes a point where “write what you know” can start to feel like a strait-jacket. With my first crime thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood I chose to make my main character Nora a writer, and have her attend a hen party – both experiences I knew something about, though the setting (a boxy glass house in the middle of a Northumberland forest) was entirely made up.

In my second novel, The Woman in Cabin 10, I decided to spread my wings. I wanted to write a crime thriller set on a cruise – and I’d never been on one. In fact the closest thing I’d experienced was a cross-channel ferry (much less glamorous). At the time I had small children, a job, and very limited childcare, and I couldn’t simply drop everything to take a trip to the Norwegian Fjords. So I turned to google and YouTube, and told myself that I’d start writing and then squeeze in a research trip further down the line. Well, spoiler, I never made it. I still haven’t been on a cruise, and the first time I actually went to Norway was to promote the Norwegian edition of the book (Kvinnen i luger 10, in case you’re wondering.)

With The It Girl I went half and half. My main character, Hannah, is a bookseller, and she’s also pregnant. I worked as a bookseller part time for several years, and then later in the book industry, so it’s a world I didn’t need to research too much. And having had two babies, I could easily remember what it was like to be six months pregnant, hauling your burgeoning belly in and out of cars, and attending scans and midwife appointments.

The part of the book that was unfamiliar (and it was a big part) was Oxford – the city where Hannah and April end up attending university.

I never went to Oxford – I attended Manchester University, which is a very different type of college experience. Magdalen College, in Oxford, takes about 100 undergraduate students a year, nearly all of whom live and study within the walls of the college itself. Manchester, by contrast, takes more than 8000 undergraduates, and students live spread out across the southern part of the city in halls of residence, university-owned blocks of flats, or privately rented houseshares. It’s a big, bustling, rambunctuous student experience where it’s very possible to get lost, reinvent yourself, and choose how far you want to participate, completely different to the closed college environment of an Oxford college where, quite literally, everybody knows your name. But how could I recreate a college experience I’d never had, and convey what it was like to live in a place I’d barely set foot?

When I asked some other writers what they thought about “write what you know”, opinion was divided. Neil Lancaster, an ex Metropolitan Police Officer who writes the Max Craigie police thrillers, feels that it’s an advantage to know the world you’re writing. “It’s easy for me [because] I have to do minimal research,” he told me. “I know what corners I can cut, and which I can’t to keep the authenticity.”

On the other hand the thiller writer Kate Helm chose to set her novel The Secrets You Hide in a world she knew well, having been a court report, but thinks that being too close can sometimes be a disadvantage. “I actually think often informed outsiders are better at picking the interesting bits rather than those deeply embedded in the particular world, because you’re too involved/partial otherwise.”

Clare Mackintosh, also an ex police officer, agrees there can be advantages to being an outsider. “I’ve always wanted to be a flight attendant,” she told me, “and setting a thriller on a plane felt like I was vicariously living my childhood career dreams. I carried out twice the amount of research I’ve done for my police thrillers, because I wanted Hostage to have the same sense of authenticity. I actually found I could write far more freely without the weight of personal experience on my shoulders.”

There’s also the fact that research and knowledge isn’t enough on its own. Rachael Blok used her experience of being a new mother when writing Under The Ice but found wasn’t enough to make the book compelling. “I wrote what I knew while I was writing my first ever draft, but forgot to add plot until halfway through. Writing about a situation you understand is one thing, but plot is queen.'”

In the end, I didn’t let my lack of knowledge stop me writing The It Girl the way I wanted. I set the book at a fictional college, which freed me up somewhat, and spent most of the covid lockdown shamelessly badgering friends who had been to Oxbridge. When the colleges finally reopened to visitors, I did at last manage to squeeze in a real, in person research trip, with a fascinating behind the scenes tour of one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. And the fact is, Hannah herself is an outsider – so in some ways her wide-eyed unfamiliarity with Oxford tradition echoes my own.

Maybe at the end of the day the saying should be not so much, write a world you know, as know the world you write. Research carefully, imagine fully, and spread your wings.

Oh, and if you write crime, definitely, definitely don’t murder anyone.