Write What You Know?

Like many aspiring authors, when I was young and learning I was told to only “write what you know.” The reasoning was, I guess, don’t step outside your comfort zone because your audience will know if you make it up. And like many young authors, this I did, to the point where a lot of early characters are easily identifiable as people I knew, and not much happens outside of the world of a teenager.

However, as I grew older and started to be able to understand a little bit more about what I was writing, this piece of advice came to seem to me to be completely facetious. How can Stephen King write about killer cars? He doesn’t know any killer cars. How can Bram Stoker write about Dracula, Tolkien write about Middle Earth, Verne write about anything he wrote about? They did not know the things they wrote – they just wrote. They made things up and they wrote. Surely! And so I started to increase my writing to include things I made up.

And for years, the whole write what you know thing was ignored by me.

Then, in 2006, I met a student who wanted to write, and I think she had (and most probably still has) great talent. I hope one day to see her name on the cover of a book. But she asked my advice, and I debated what to tell her. In the end I told her a lot of things – don’t worry about what other people think, find unbiased readers, try to sell as often as possible, if it sounds right to you leave it be… all that sort of thing. And then I said to her that she could use what she knows as a basis for writing, but it should not be the end point.

I now think that was not good advice on my behalf.

About 8 months ago I was approached by a writing group to talk to some older would-be writers about how to get started writing. They have ideas, but are not sure how to put them on paper. I decided to forego their offer because I felt I could not do justice to what they wanted (and pushed them towards another writerly friend), but it did get me thinking. And having completed Voyage Home, I have come to understand why I finally managed to finish it.

As an author we need to write what we know.

As a fantasy writer, how can we do that? Tolkien studied language, knew his mythology, and then wrote copious notes and drew maps. So much of the information he gathered and created for his world never made it into the books, but it was there because he needed it to be there. He needed to know what he was writing. I always wondered why so many fantasy books had maps in them – now I’ve done it with Voyage Home. You make up the information, but then you write the story based on that – on what you know. Your stories need an internal logic that can only come from your own knowledge. I realised that I had been doing that for years in my fantasy tales, with notes about recurring characters – I just didn’t realise what I was doing.

Okay, so what about horror? Well, what you know is the feeling of horror or dread or terror. What produces this feeling is basically irrelevant – it’s the emotions that matter. You have to know those emotions. Sure, it helps to know why someone might be afraid of something, or how they react. I think Stephen King might have a slight fear of technology, with killer cars, refrigerators, manglers, etc. So he knows how to put that fear he has into words.

Then there is science fiction. Science fiction has fiction in it, but also science. You can’t have a faster than light craft powered by rubber band propellers – the science does not work in any known universe. You need to know and understand the science you are using. Why are your plants red and not green? Why are the aliens green? Why are they big or small or the same size as us? Why have mammals evolved in the same way as they did on Earth? Even if that doesn’t appear in your story, you should have some sort of basic understanding as to why.

So, what if you don’t know, but your story needs it? Then research. Read books, look at encyclopaedias, browse the Internet, whatever… but make sure you do that research. It is a reason why a lot of writers set a lot of their stories in similar places to others of their stories. Stephen King grew up and lived in New England. Mark Twain came from the Mississippi River region. Even me, in my own small way, I write stories set in Australia, particularly South Australia. And if there is a place I want the story to go to, then I need to research it. You cannot have snow-capped mountains a day’s drive away from Uluru in the Australian outback. It’s not real, and doesn’t work.

Also, ask people. Let’s say I want a story where the main character is a disgraced clogthreeper. First, I need to find out what a clogthreeper does, what he could do that would be considered a disgrace, and how that would affect him. How do I find out? Well, I could read about it, but the best thing to do is ask questions. I needed a gay character, so I asked a homosexual friend about some aspects. I have had a zoo-keeper, so I asked one of the people at the Adelaide Zoo. Ask, interview, and don’t be afraid to do it. Your work will thank you for the accuracy. (Oh, I would also say here to ask more than one person, or else that character may become the person you are interviewing, or you could end up with a stylised version of the character, not a realistic one.)

Finally, if you have to make it up, make sure it makes sense. You have a great fantasy world – where do they get their food from? How much of their world is farmland? What about mines for metal ores? How do they make clothes? All right, then, let’s say your story has a huge cat, as large as a bus – have you remembered that for every doubling in size, there is an eight times increase in mass? Have you given the creature legs that can support such weight? What about the amount of food it would have to eat? Yes, magic can account for some things, but what about in a non-magical world? On Earth non-arthropod animals are generally tetrapods. They don’t have wings as well as four other limbs. That’s not to say they can’t on another world. But then other animals would also be hexapods. Evolution tends to work in patterns.

Do you see where I’m going? Logic needs to dictate what you write and therefore what you know.

So, I am going to go back on years of personal belief. You need to write what you know. But what you know may or may not be something you made up. What you know needs to follow logic and science, or even an internal logic and strange science of your world. It does need to be consistent. Research is important, even if that research results in you making up your own world.

So, maybe as well as write what you know, we should be saying know what you write.

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  1. #1 by Matt on April 16, 2013 - 1:03 pm

    That was a great post, Steven. I think it is especially useful for speculative fiction writers, particularly less experienced ones that may be confused by always hearing “write what you know”, which I think is more a hindrance to creativity in spec fiction than a help.

    I think “write about what interests you” is a much better philosophy than “write what you know”, because only when you find something that it is interesting are you prepared to do the thorough research you mentioned to get something right and make it believable to the reader.

  1. Stealing some advice from Lucy Clark | Confused Ramblings

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