It’s guest post time again. This post comes from the rather talented Tirzah Duncan. Incidentally, my guest post ‘Learning to write: The Goldilocks Effect’ will soon be gracing her blogspace with some very strange analogies. Check out Tirzah’s blog here, then read this sample of her novel, Ever the Actor, and wait with excitement until this brilliant book gets published (hurry up with that, Tirzah!)
Write What You Know. This is an interesting statement that has annoyed me for a long time. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood it. Perhaps I’ve understood it perfectly and yet disagreed with it. Or perhaps, like any adage, it was meant for certain times and situations (he who hesitates is lost) and has simply been too often misapplied when an opposite adage would have been more appropriate (look before you leap).
Let’s leap into a little dissection of this standard five-word piece of writing instruction.
Here is how some take this little piece of writing wisdom: Write Yourself/Your Situation/Your Emotional Journey.
This is the meaning that seems, to me, to be the obvious one. Now, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with writing characters who are facets of yourself and people you know. Nothing wrong with writing a situation very similar to yours, and nothing wrong with using your writing to chronicle your emotional journey. Quasi-biography is a legitimate device, and there have been perfectly powerful stories written using any and each of these concepts. And I’m sure that for some, using “Write what you know” in this way has been wonderful career-starting advice.
But for the wrong person at the wrong time, this idea is entirely terrible, like crying “He who hesitates is lost!” to someone going cliff-diving from an untested height—or a little more appropriately in this case, like crying “look before you leap!” to someone bracing up for their first ever jump from the high-dive.
One young writer had this to say about writing what you know:
“I think it’s a bad saying. Even if it has a deeper meaning beyond the obvious, the obvious one is what’s going to enter most people’s minds. I don’t like it because it almost stopped me from following my dreams… I came across that saying while looking up writing advice and it pretty much stabbed me in the heart. I was a 16 year old girl who had no world experience, didn’t even go to high school, and I wanted to write these fantastical stories like the ones I loved reading.”
She didn’t manage to recover from that blow until she found this little piece of counter-advice from Kit Whitfield. “It’s not about what you’ve literally experienced yourself: fiction isn’t journalism. It’s about how closely you pay attention to what you do experience.”
I think a good rule of thumb is to Write What Your Characters Know.
One probably needs to be human (or something similar) and have experienced relatable human emotions (or something similar) to write stories that other beings of the same species will read and relate to. But that’s all you need. You don’t need to have traveled the exact emotional journey your character is experiencing. You just need to pay attention to what you do experience, look at what they’re going through, and find the lowest common emotional denominator.
Perhaps your character is going through a vicious divorce. Perhaps you’ve never been in a serious romantic relationship. But have you ever felt the pain of betrayal, even in a tiny way? Have you ever felt angry? Have you ever felt aggravated by someone’s very presence? Take these seeds of greater emotion, pay them close attention, and imagine the rest.
Set yourself fully in your character’s shoes, immerse yourself in their consciousness, and seek to understand them more fully than you understand yourself. (That shouldn’t be too hard; selves are tricky things, and far stranger than fiction.) Once you’ve seen through your character’s eyes, felt their pains and joys and trials and limitations and strengths, then you will be able to write their journey as if it were your own. (No, better; one’s own journey is a tricky thing, and far stranger than fiction.)
Of course, you’ll be setting yourself up for a mild brand of schizophrenia, but that’s just one of the risks of a writer’s life.
But perhaps this isn’t the saying’s intended meaning. Perhaps it meant Write What You’ve Researched.
Are you writing a historical fiction? Even if it’s alternate, fantastic, or a sci-fi time-travel tale, don’t mention that the bride wearing a white wedding dress and walking down an aisle, unless you know for a fact that brides did that in Frederick the Great’s time in Prussia, or 15th century Ireland, or whatever and whenever you’re writing. The point is, get it right.
You may have it a little easier in a modern or urban setting, but you had still better know the difference between a gun’s hammer and slide, whether or not you’re likely to find a warehouse in downtown Denver, and the logistics of circumventing a museum’s security systems, even with the use of limited telekinesis. Or, you know, whatever is actually relevant to your story. The point is, get it right.
If you’re writing a fantasy, you may be supposing that you’re off the hook for research—you’re not. You have a different sort of research to do, a research that involves reaching into your own head and writing the encyclopedia yourself, but it is research all the same. And unless you’re writing a translation of a higher thing comparable to a story that you discovered in a dimension utterly unlike ours, there are going to be comparable elements. You need to know how long it would take the average horse to make it from Keirn Vale to the outpost at Jerrig-Nuin, if you want to figure out how fast your elven forces would have to move to beat the human message-runner there.
And even besides the comparable elements, you must decide what the rules of your world are, and why. We sci-fi and fantasy folk call it worldbuilding, but it’s really an internal and ethereal version of research, and it’s just as exhausting—and just as vital to the suspension of disbelief. The point is, even if the only thing you have to do is not contradict yourself, get it right.
If “Write what you know” means “Write it only if you’ve come to know the facts”, then I agree with it entirely. If you don’t know the facts of the matter, find out those facts before you throw it out there for the readers. You’re bound to get some things wrong anyway, but you owe it to those readers to at least try not to break their suspension of disbelief. Whether it’s Spain’s relationship with England at the time of Robert the Bruce, or the landscape around a small fictional town set in actual southwestern Missouri, or the essentials of the world constructed in your own head—get it right.
But I think the most important rule to keep in mind is Write What You Want.
Writing rules exist for a reason, and it’s a very good reason. As Kyle Aistech once said, “The rules are there for you to understand how readers read. Once you know that, they’re silly putty.”
If “Write what you know” means “Write yourself/your experiences/your emotional journey”, then it is not a rule at all, but an optional prompt that some writers can choose to follow, like “write a story including the words ‘mountain goat’ and ‘no white paint’”, or “write a story inspired by this picture of a stick”. I have done both, and both gave me lovely little short stories, but neither of them is anything like a rule.
If “Write what you know” means “Write what your characters know” or “Write what you’ve researched”, then it is a rule– a rule designed to teach you that readers read to be convinced. They want to be able to believe in your character’s feelings, in their setting and actions. And they don’t appreciate it when your writing doesn’t let them.
But once you understand that rule–”Readers want to be convinced”– then you can write what you want. The rule is silly putty. Bend it to your will, stretch your reader’s mind. Lemony Snicket created a world in which children can make working bungee cords out of rubber bands, and sharp-toothed infants can bite their way up elevator shafts. I doubt that would pan out in any Mythbusters episode. But Snicket wrote what he wanted to write, and his readers, expertly played by a master of the craft, stretched their belief like silly-putty.
So in the end, whatever the rules and adages and prompts say, write what you want
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