Write Where You Know

Write Where You Know

By: Kev Harrison

Writing advice is as common as it is varied. But one nugget which seems to have stood the test of time, is to ‘write what you know.’ There’s been constant debate over what this really means for your fiction. In this article, I’m going to recommend a slight twist on this. Write where you know. 

As with all writing advice, it’s important to know that your mileage may vary. But this is something which has worked for me, and might do for you, too.

A sense of place

When my debut novella, The Balance, dropped in 2020, I was incredibly nervous. But, as the book began to find its audience, one element which came to the fore in many of the good reviews it received was the location. Readers felt grounded in the setting. They felt the chill of the snow, the closeness and isolation of the dense forest. And this was no accident. 

In 2011, I moved to Poland, where I lived in a small city with medieval origins called Torun, in the north of the country. Because it was such a small place, and perhaps because of that sense of everything being new to me, I got out into the wilderness quite quickly. Coming from the south of England originally, I hadn’t seen much in the way of truly wintry weather. But, after three months living in Poland, we experienced one of the coldest winters in around twenty years. Temperatures dropped to thiry-six degrees below freezing in Centigrade (around minus thirty-three in Fahrenheit), and suddenly the forests that surrounded my city were silent, white landscapes, waiting to be explored.

Even though The Balance was set in a different region of the country, writing the forest in which the book’s own Baba Yaga lived felt so natural. I could look back over photos I’d taken in the woods just a few kilometres from my apartment and be there, stomping through the snow before the weak winter daylight faded, plunging me into darkness. When it came to painting in details, such as the flora and fauna, having lived in that place made it all so much easier. I had been face-to-face with many of the plants and animals described in the book.


Place as Inspiration

When it came to another recent book which remains in the edit phase, I was inspired by a snippet of folklore. A tale from western France, to do with a faerie who harvests the souls of those caught in storms out on the coast, only allowing the raging seas to calm when its appetite is sated. 

The more I dug into the stories, the more I understood how richly woven the folkloric tapestry of the region was. So, I immediately began to consider how I might get to the place. 

One advantage of living in Europe is that distances are so short. You can be almost anywhere on the continent within five hours, from almost anywhere else. So, when my better half had a medical congress in Paris, I decided it was a good chance to hijack the trip for my own nefarious ends.

We travelled down to the fortified coastal city of Saint Malo, hired a car and headed out to a tiny hamlet called Le Tronchet. There, we found a community that has believed in the existence of the fae folk for well over a thousand years. Where they still believe in them today. We hiked out into the forest and found a tunnel of menhirs, built by early settlers in the region as an offering to the fae. A tunnel for them to pass from their world to ours, with the hope that they would stop kidnapping their children.

I’d seen photos of this tunnel before I went, which is why I felt so curious about it. But there’s something different about standing in a forest clearing, the only sounds around you the scrabbling of birds and squirrels, and placing your hand on a 2,000-year-old stone tunnel, erected as a conduit for beings from another dimension. That feeling was locked into my brain throughout the writing of that book.

Aides memoires

When I came to writing my debut novel, Shadow of the Hidden (coming on the 19th of March from Brigids Gate Press), the story I wanted to tell was from longer ago. The jumping off point for the novel is an event which happened to a friend of mine when I lived in Turkey, back in early 2011. Except I was only writing the story in 2021.

The novel concerns a djinn, a Middle Eastern, supernatural entity, and as I researched ways for the story I wanted to tell to unfold, I found myself pulled into other places within the region, where I had travelled extensively. But these experiences were even longer ago, some as far back as 2009.

Still, having that lived experience of being in those place for months at a time was a huge help. By trawling through old photos, blogs I’d written, conversations I’d had with others present at the time, and of course with the help of online tools like Google streetview, I was able to faithfully recreate the sense of driving through the chaos of Istanbul’s ancient streets, or of crossing the threshold of the quiet, baking holy city of Kairouan for the first time. 

There’s a chase scene in the book, in central Cairo, which starts on one side of the Nile and crosses over to the other, towards one of the city’s most ancient and revered mosques. As I wrote that passage and as I read it back even now, I can smell the heavy silt-laced fragrance of the Nile. I can see the endless tumult of people who seem to forever be moving one way or another along the corniche. I hope, and believe, that this sense of location will make the story ever more vivid for the reader.


Of course, it’s not always possible to travel to the places we want to feature in our books. There are incredible resources available to us in these cases, in libraries, in books, online, or in the minds of experts who are often only too happy to answer questions from writers. But if you have the chance and means, I strongly recommend planting yourself on the same earth you wish to write about. Breathe the air. Eat the food. Listen to the sounds of the streets, the woods, or whatever it may be. And, if you can, write where you know.

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