Why Write What You Know?

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(Quick note: Bonemaker, my Wattpad story about Morda, has a few updates. I’ll be posting this and a few other origin stories on Wattpad for the sheer hell of it. These are Aurian and Jin canon, through and through, but can be read, I think, without prior A&J knowledge. Though I, of course, have the most A&J knowledge of anyone, so I can;t be sure of that, can I?)

I’ve been talking about doing this for a while, but I have, as far as I can remember, yet to do it.

I want to talk about that most famous piece of writing advice–also, as far as I’m concerned, one of them most frequently misinterpreted and abused. That is, of course, the infamous:

write what you know.

I want you to take a second, wherever you are and what you’re doing, and think about what a silly piece of advice this is to take literally. If we all wrote what we know, we’d be at best biographers, and at worst textbook authors. You don’t want to write your own boring life story. Of course you don’t want to write your own boring life story–you’ve been living it for however-many years you’ve been around. And if you don’t write something you find interesting, well. You can imagine how your work suffers, if even you aren’t interested.

Besides. There’s a reason people rarely write their own biographies. When someone picks up a biography, they’re looking for true details about the life and times of the biographee. And you, writing your own autobiography, are actually the person least likely to give them.

What, you say? But it’s my life!

Elementary, Watson. It is your life–therefore, you have a vested interest in making yourself look good. And a lot of the ‘true facts’–let’s face it. No matter how awesome you’ve been, a lot of the ‘true facts’ don’t make you look like a hero. Writing an autobiography would be tough. I don’t envy anyone who has to do it.

Anyway. Digressed a little there.

The old write what you know would, I think, be better expressed this way:

Write what you can imagine. Write what you can research.

Why? Because you’ve never been a gourmet chef. You’ve never driven a bus. You’ve certainly never poisoned your lover, and you’ve probably never put a death-curse on an innocent bystander, either. At least, not an effective one.

But you have to write about this stuff sometimes. If you just write about your own life, you’ve got one series in you, at best, and even that’s a series of limited scope.

Mind you, I’d never say not to use your own experience. That’s part of research. Maybe you do need a character who shares your profession, your martial status, your taste in friends. And that’s great: in that case, yes, add what you know into the mix. Maybe you are a bus driver, and you want to write from the point of view of one. Awesome! You know a lot about that already!

But all your MCs can’t be bus drivers. That’s where imagination comes in.

Say, for instance, you do want to write a story where your MC is a bus driver, and you’ve never been one. We’ll call it A Million Miles, because we like melodrama. It’ll be wonderous and heart-wrenching, I promise. Certainly all the imaginary critics will agree. You’ll be like the Oliver Sacks of public transportation.

You, of course, have never driven a bus in your life. But you’ve ridden on one–and if you haven’t, it’s time to take the bus to work for a week. Talk to the bus driver a little (when it’s not distracting them, of course–this person’s responsible for the safety of everyone on that bus, so have a little respect). Listen to the people around you, check out a few different routes.

You don’t know what it is to be a bus driver, but with a few tools and facts at your disposal, you can imagine the rest.

Find out some stuff–how do bus drivers get paid? Do they run the same route all the time, or do they switch off? How many miles has your bus driver buddy driven? (I hope, for the sake of your title, it’s a million). Do they have to take breaks frequently, to fight the monotony of the road? What’s the most annoying thing about being a bus driver? What’s the best? What happens if the bus breaks down?

Once you’ve got a little information in you, you can let your imagination take over. You can imagine the constant hum of the bus, how slowly such a large thing must start and stop. You can imagine what seeing the same scenery all day every day must be like–is it lulling, comforting? Irritating? Monotonous?

And then, since your bus driver’s driving a route, you can people your bus. The ladies in uniform going to and from work. The two young mothers who get on at Stop 5488, whose babies, your MC always thought, look suspiciously similar. The quiet guy who wears the same striped scarf every day in the winter, and the same aviators every day in the summer. The old homeless man who hums to himself the entire ride, and who whistles, sometimes, with surprising skill.

That time a young kid, obviously drunk, threw up in the back seat and didn’t tell anybody. The way that smell stays in the damn seats, no matter how much Febreeze your MC sprays on it. How hungry your MC gets around lunch time, when folks are traveling with takeout in their laps (not eating it, of course. No Food or Drink On the Bus). The young woman your MC lets on, even though she doesn’t have the fare, because she’s obviously frightened, and the look in her eyes says she needs to get away.

You can imagine the last run, at 11:30 or so. A quiet bus, overhead lights glaring. One kid half-asleep in the back seat. The bus lumbering, ponderously, through the night–your MC looking forward to a good night’s sleep and the series he’s been making his way through on Netflix.

A note about imagination–make sure you’re doing it with all five senses (see that? I wrote a post about that). It may even benefit you to get a little woo-woo about it: at some quiet point in your day, close your eyes, sit back in a place where there are few disturbances, and imagine the thing that’s happening, just like you would’ve if you were still a kid.

Some exercises, to get you started thinking with all five senses:

1) Write a brief story about a trip to your mother’s house. Write it, solely, in the language of scents.
2) Describe the execution of Anne Boleyn from the point of view of a blind bystander.
3) Describe the outfit of the person next to you from head to toe. Do it in that order. Keep it visual.
4) Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes, and you’re writing one of his informative essays for the good of the crime-fighting intelligentsia. Describe the sound of at least five different types of shoes on a linoleum floor after a rain. Feel free to use onomatopoeias in spades.
5) Imagine you’re doing a blindfolded taste-testing for a juice company (or beer company, if you want to not be lame). Five different types of juice, five different horrible little plastic glasses. Describe your experience. Identify your juices.

A last note, for all my fantasy beauties out there–I can hear you now, making the ages-old complaint of the fantasy author confronted with write what you know–‘but I’ve never been a damned wizard. I don’t know any wizards. How can I research being a wizard?’

The answer–you get to imagine the ‘being a wizard’ part. You totally do. But imagine, as always, within reason–imagine practically. Being a wizard is a job, just like being a bus driver. What’s a day in the life of a wizard like? What do wizards get paid? How does a wizard become a wizard? What’s the most annoying part of wizarddom?

You’re asking, more or less, the same questions of your wizard you’d ask of your bus driver. The only difference is, you’re answering for your wizard as well. So do it practically, and ask the same questions.

Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean you can get away with doing no research. So here, for my fantasy authors, is a list of questions to ‘ask’ your wizard/warlord/unlikely YA hero/thief/dragonrider:

1) How does one become a wizard?
2) What’s the worst thing about being a wizard? What’s the best?
3) How do wizards get paid? Do wizards get paid, or is it more of a side thing?
4) What sorts of conversations do wizards have amongst themselves?
5) How do wizards look at people who aren’t wizards?
6) Describe a typical day in the life of a wizard.
7) What do wizards do to relax?
8) Does being a wizard require one to keep odd hours? If so, what are some of the results of that?
9) Where does a wizard live? Is he rich, or poor? Popular, or spurned?
10) How does being a wizard affect a wizard’s romantic life?

There y’go, kids. Long post, because I love you THAT MUCH.

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10 thoughts on “Why Write What You Know?

  1. I agree with you. My version of ‘ write what you know’ is’ know what you write.’ If you imagine it, make sure you’ve done enough research, world building and background work so that you can convey your story and setting as if you were there. It does’t all have to be in place when beginning the book but it all needs to be in place by the end.

    1. I totally agree: fantasy works best when it’s grounded and completely thought out–when, basically, your research has been done. I’m a fantasy writer primarily, and for example I just wrote a story in which a character has to muck out a stable.

      I had to, of course, research stable-mucking to write the scene. Because that’s where realism in fantasy begins–people mucking out stables, brewing beer, forging swords, accurately. It would suck to create this whole elaborate world and then have it come crashing down because someone who works with horses notices your stable-mucking scene is ridiculously unlike actual stable-mucking.

      Even if it WAS totally unlike actual stable-mucking–maybe pixies do it for you if you leave them out a saucer of milk–you’d STILL need to know what stable-mucking is really like to write the scene. Because it brings up a whole new set of questions–how’re these tiny pixies lifting a pitchfork? What do they do with the soiled straw? Why’re they willing to perform such a messy, stinky task for a saucer of milk?

      I’m a firm believer in the fact that everything, including fantasy, is founded in realism. It’s tough to build a whole imaginary world if you don’t know how the real one works.

      That was probably an overlong answer to this comment. Sorry, I do go on. 😛

      1. I write science fiction but love fantasy, so I understand exactly where you’re coming from. There will always be parts of the world you’ve created that when writing you realise you haven’t fully thought through, but it’s at that point you stop writing and start thinking or researching.
        I’ve been told one area many authors (especially fantasy or historical fiction authors) seem to mess up is around the relationship between a horse and their rider. I don’t ride myself but I’ve been told there’s nearly always a fantastic bond between rider and horse that’s almost never captured in fantasy books.

    1. “I heard two thunks, three. Nay–four. The axe handle shuddered in my grip.

      “Um,” the lady said, from somewhere across the room.”Not that I want to encourage this, but. I’m over here.” “

  2. I remember Dick Van Dyke in an interview saying he was given that advice, write what you know. He said he embraced it. but he knew a lot. He’d been to war and been writer and a comedian and a performer, so his experience was vast when he started writing for TV.

    I thought, how do you write Star Wars, then, if it doesn’t exist? The universal themes of good versus evil? Or did Lucas “know” that world because he invented it? As in, know it really well before you start writing…

    Beats me.

    But then there’s this. I write all kinds of stuff. All kinds. Sci fi, paranormal, romance… and one thing that always gets comments, from critique partners or beta readers or fans, is when I have a kid in the scene. They always comment on how funny/accurate/cute the kid is. I guess it’s because I write what I know, and I know my kid. And I make her (as a character) look good, and she shines in those moments in the story. I write her accurately and readers see the truth there. I’m writing what I know, and I know her well.

    So it’s important to make stuff up and dive in deep into it, but there’s also something about seeing truth – as stuff we know – and really, really liking it.

    1. Oh, there totally is. It’s important to write what you know, too. But it isn’t always possible–that’s my take on the matter. Sometimes, in order to write an interesting story, you have to venture out into the world a little.

      The heart of a story is often what you DO know. You might not know what it means to be Dark Lord of Gzshblurg, but you know what it’s like to lose a friend–so your Dark Lord loses a friend. I’ve never been a warrior princess, but my warrior princess has to muck out a stable, and THAT, at least, can be done accurately. I’d even argue that if it’s not–if the warrior princess moves some straw around with a hammer, or something-it ruins the story for the reader.

      So yeah. I agree, write what you know when you can. But don’t *just* stick to what you know, is what I’m sayin’. 🙂

  3. My comment is going to stick to the “write what you know” remark. If I were writing about what I know, well, it’d be horrible. Nobody wants to read about database design, even database designers don’t want to read that shit. My current active project has nothing to do with anything I know about, but that makes it fun.

  4. Write what you know is a logical, mental exercise. But we’re told that readers need to make an emotional connection to our work (except for those crazy mystery readers who just want the puzzle). Seems like the advice should be ‘write what you’ve felt.’

    Dan, you clearly love your child, and it’s that love connection that makes your kid shine on the page. We are, after all, writing about the human experience (except for the SF weirdos who write about aliens, of course). What each of us knows is our human experience. Mine that to put on the page and your work will always feel honest to the reader.

    1. So what I feel, evidently, is farting and drinking. I knew it! 😛

      This is very true, too. Though I still stand by the fact that the set dressings have to contain some verisimiltude as well; it’s hard to put your faith in a story about a boy and his horse when the writer obviously knows nothing about horses, no matter how deep the feeling is.

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