Write What You Know?

by Stella Tarakson

There’s an old writers’ dictum: only write what you know. When I first started writing fiction seriously, I took it to heart. I’m a lawyer, so I should write a legal thriller, right? I tried. It didn’t work for me. Writing one didn’t excite me the way it should. Needless to say, I abandoned the first draft midway, and started looking around for something else to work on. I’ve spent far too long messing about with the things that I thought I should be writing, rather than asking myself what I wanted to write.

The answer, I discovered, came from thinking about what I’d most like to read. I’ve always loved Greek mythology, thanks to my immigrant Greek parents. And I’ve always loved humour. I didn’t deliberately set out to combine the two, it kind of happened all by itself. I wanted to write serious stories based on mythology, but I found myself getting more and more amused as I researched. Hard not to, when you really get into it. I decided to surrender to it …

In my Hopeless Heroes series, I was able to combine some quirky humour with tales that have stood the test of time. I had to twist them, of course, otherwise I’d be adding nothing new. For instance, we all know the traditional stories about Hercules, but how would he behave if he were here today? Would his super-strong (but not so super-smart) strategies work for tackling school bullies and housework? In Here Comes Hercules I got to play around with this idea and have a giggle at the same time.

Why the old saying is kind of true

There is some merit to the old writers’ dictum. It’s easier to write about something you know. There’s less chance of making mistakes about the world the story inhabits. And yes, factual errors do matter! Especially when you’re writing for children. They absorb so much from fiction, it’s a great opportunity to teach by stealth. While it’s fine to write about things that are obviously untrue (e.g. unicorns), it’s not so good to make glaring mistakes about real world things. Having a Spartan soldier sip a coffee before striding out to battle is a no-no.

Having said that, though, I don’t think the dictum should be taken too literally. If it were, the world of fiction would be a very dry and dull place. There would be no Harry Potter, no Darth Vader, no Percy Jackson. No magic, no time travel, no vampires. Even stories set in the real world would be far more rigid and restrained. Sure, many writers have experienced incredible things that they can translate into breathtaking stories. Many more haven’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine them! Kids have such amazing minds, we don’t want to stifle them by falling short of their standards.

Write what you feel

I think what the dictum really means is write about the emotions that you know. Fear, anger, jealousy, elation. All part of the human condition. All familiar to readers, regardless of their age. It doesn’t matter where the story is set, if it’s about the sorts of feelings that readers can connect with, it will ring true.

Hopeless Heroes is not just about the weird and wonderful tales of Greek mythology. It’s about families, friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Everyone knows what it feels like to be picked on at school, or to miss your friends. We’ve all had a secret we’ve been dying to tell, but had to keep quiet to protect another person.

Imagining the impossible

While writing Here Comes Hercules, I was struck by an intriguing question. How would it be if we were to suddenly find ourselves in mythical times? In the later books, the setting switches between modern-day England and Ancient Greece. What would it feel like to meet Theseus, Jason and Odysseus? Could I do a deal with the giant spider Arachne, or outwit the three Grey Women who share a single eye?

While I’m writing, all the problems of the modern world fade away. Instead of watching the horror stories we call the news, I can cling onto an ancient vase and travel through time. I get to meet some famous heroes … who are maybe not quite so heroic after all. I encounter bizarre monsters, cross ancient landscapes, solve baffling puzzles, and defy the gods themselves. I only hope they don’t hold grudges …

Fortunately, I get to do it all through a 10-year-old boy called Tim Baker, who in a rather unsettling sort of way is me. At least, he would be me if I were 10, which I’m not. Or a boy, which I’m also not. Except for when I’m sitting at my writing desk – and then I can be anything I want to be!

Here Comes Hercules and Hera’s Terrible Trap are the first two books in the Hopeless Heroes series. They will be published on 22nd February 2018 by Sweet Cherry Publishing, and are available from Foyles, Waterstones and local bookshops. 

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This is a guest post by Stella Tarakson. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of FCBG. 

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