Write what you know – but let the muse be your guide

Swimming with Horses Blog

Write what you know – but let the muse be your guide

Posted on March 4 by Oakland Ross in Fiction, Recent Releases
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How did you research your book?

They say that you should write what you know, and I think that this is either good advice or bad, depending on the circumstances. If writers wrote only what they knew, we’d have no Lord of the Rings, no Chronicles of Narnia, and precious little science fiction. (We might not even have the Bible.)

On the other hand, the things you know best are apt to contain the most powerful forces in your life. Why not harness them?

In the case of my most recent novel Swimming with Horses, I took the write-what-you-know route – mostly. The book has quite a lot to do with horses – as you might have guessed from the title – and that was the easy part. I had the good sense to grow up on a horse farm northwest of Toronto, and my early life revolved around these wonderful animals. I didn’t need to research the differences between a curry comb and a dandy brush, for example, or between a snaffle and a pelham bit; I already knew.

On the other hand, about half the novel is set in apartheid-era South Africa, a country I have travelled through as a journalist but do not know with any great intimacy. It helped that I used to live in Zimbabwe, a country whose white settler culture is very similar to its South African counterpart. Plus my younger sister put me in touch with a friend of hers named Sandy Mattison, a South African in Cape Town. I got in touch with Sandy by email, and she answered almost all my questions, especially those concerning anglo South African diction and idiom, including the most perplexing question of all: what do anglo South African kids call their mother – “Mum” or “Mom?” Answer: it depends.


What was the creative process like for you?

At times, this book was an awful struggle, but at other times the experience was sublime. During the good periods, I felt as if I weren’t writing at all. I felt as if some junior god of fiction – appalled at my countless wrong turns in this or that chapter – had shoved me aside in order to take charge and write the damned section herself. All I had to do was watch as the words flew across the screen, as if by magic. I love that feeling – I wish it would happen more.


Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

An advance reader named Paulina posted an enthusiastic review of my book online, a critique that included this passage: “I’m still mentally dizzy from the adventure [the book] sprang on me. There were tears but there were audible outbursts of laughter in public, too.”

Tears and laughter! Public laughter! What writer could hope for more?



Oakland Ross

Posted by Kendra on March 27, 2018
Oakland Ross photo

Oakland Ross

Oakland Ross has written two previous novels, a travel memoir, and a short story collection. He worked as a foreign correspondent for several years and received two National Newspaper Awards and a National Magazine Award for fiction. Oakland lives in Toronto.