Sunday, 19 January 2014

When does "Write what you know" go too far?

Write what you know. It's something that every writer hears almost from the moment they're starting out. I've been thinking recently about what that means.

Now, it's not to be taken literally. It doesn't mean write only your own life story and experiences, because then the literature available in your average bookshop or library would be woefully anaemic. Kurt Vonnegut and H.G.Wells would have very different reputations if they had only written about things they had seen with their own eyes. I always take it to mean, start from what you know and build from there. Think of everything around you as potential inspiration, keep your senses open to anything that might appear.

Recently, however, I've had that pushed to the limit. I witnessed an unpleasant incident in a public place, which I reported to the police, so I won't put any more details here. The following day, however, I was mulling over a plot problem and it came to me that what I'd seen could happen to my main character. As soon as the idea struck me I was horrified with myself, using someone else's frightening experience as material for fiction. But then, fiction is full of characters experiencing nasty things, and surely some of those must be inspired by real events. That event would really help to develop both character and plot in a way I want, but a part of me wonders if it's ethical to use it. It would be adapted to fit the circumstances of my novel, of course, rather than being exactly the same, but is that still too close to the real thing?

I'd be interested to hear other people's opinions on this: when it comes to being inspired by real events, where do you draw the line?