Exploring Sense of Place – Do We Write What We Know?
We are curious. Do you write what you know? When you choose a setting, do you sink your story’s roots down in familiar territory, or do you head to places unknown?
Kazuo Ishiguro said: “Write about what you know” is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.
We know it’s a very individual thing. Issue 4 features a diverse array of settings. So this series, we proposed this theme to three contributors, specific to setting and a sense of place.
First up writing about her approach is Jane Percival, whose story ‘The Pouākai’ appears in Issue 4. Jane lives on the Kaipara Harbour, north-west of Auckland, New Zealand. On a typical day she juggles gardening, household tasks and writing; a good day being one where she manages to write for a couple of hours, garden for a couple of hours, cook up something tasty for tea, and walk at least 10,000 steps. Lately she has been focusing on speculative fiction. See a full list of Jane’s previous publications below. Read Jane’s story, and more in Issue 4 here.
Seeds of a Story
When I sit down to write a story, I usually only have a very vague idea of what it’s going to be about. It’s as if stories are trapped inside waiting to be set free. That’s what it feels like. And I’m not sure where most of the ideas spring from or what their origins are. In fact, until a story starts to develop, I don’t even know it’s there; that’s the interesting thing.
So, let’s say I do have the seeds of a story starting to sprout in my head … do I write about what I know?
Yes, especially at the beginning. But also throughout the stories. (I had to consider what I’ve written in the past year to work this out, so it’s a good question.)
Writing a story is a very personal process. Actually it’s very similar to a pregnancy. An idea starts to grow, then it gets nurtured and fed and parts of it start to form and mature, until finally it’s finished and you think, “Thank God that’s over!” (until next time). And you’re usually quite proud of the product … you’ve lived with it long enough and gotten to know it pretty well. Of course, there are difficult births and turbulent pregnancies, but at least when the story is born, it’s OVER. (Actually, I think writing a story is much better than a pregnancy, because it really is over with the birth.)
So yes, I can really only write about what I know. Sure, I can imagine scenarios—this is fundamental if I’m to be writing speculative fiction—but they’ll always have my own spin on them. To make it real I have to put myself in the picture and draw from my own experiences. Or from what I know about people and places. And the things I know stem from being a Pākehā woman, born into a Roman Catholic NZ family in the 1950s. It’s natural for my writings to be coloured by my upbringing, the choices I’ve made in life, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve lived. I can’t imagine separating ‘me’ from the complicated process of writing the story.
I think that many of us living in Aotearoa are drawn to the isolated parts of the country, whether it be to the wide open spaces or to untamed bush. We love the cold and the sting of sand and grit on a West Coast beach, or the perfume of mānuka and harakeke rising from a gully of ferns on a hot day, or the way the pōhutukawa looks as it fringes a dazzling white beach, or the way dense mist can box you in amongst luminous green vegetation, or the way the black sky shimmers, stippled with a million stars, far away from any street lights.
I particularly enjoy writing about the sense of loneliness within the environment. How people interact with their surroundings and how they shape their thoughts and actions. With The Pouākai, I started out thinking about a desolate beach. And wondering how it would feel to be literally washed up with no way of escape. I could picture the cove itself. Wild. God-forsaken. Lonely. Beautiful.
I’ve also always liked to observe people; the way they talk, the way they dress, their odd looks and quirky behaviours. I have a good memory going back to when I was very young and many of the scenes from my early years are fixed in my mind. So, it’s easy to call them up and re-examine them.
And after the process of writing it is over—whether it takes hours, or days or weeks or months—I frequently look at the finished product and think, “Where on earth did that come from?”
Writing about what I know doesn’t mean I’m restricted to only my own experiences. But it does mean that I can’t avoid applying my own experiences to every story that I write.
Moonshine Road (01/11/2015) Crab Fat Magazine
The Bookshop (2015). In SpecFicNZ Shorts. New Zealand, Speculative Fiction NZ. (SpecFicNZ Shorts is a free e-book. Links to where it can be downloaded can be found here.)
The Pouākai (2015). In L. McNeur & L. Nunns (Eds.), Headland Issue 4. The Maisonette Trust. ISSN 2422-9016.
(Headland Issue 4 is available from Amazon. A link to the purchase page can be found here.)
The Mysterious Mr Montague (2015). In A. Pillar (Ed.), Bloodlines (pp. 117-133). Australia, Ticonderoga Press.
Blue (22/06/2015), Micro Madness, National Flash Fiction Day NZ,
Red Blood Cell Deficiency (23/04/2015). In Flash Frontier April 2015: Iron,
Water Baby (16/11/2014) Fiction on the Web UK,