Monday, 27 February 2017

Write What You Know - What it Really Means

I see a lot of nonsense talked around this subject. "How," cry the wannabe authors, "could anyone write about dragons, if they only stuck to what they knew? Or vampires? There'd be no fantasy literature at all."

'Write What You Know' does not mean this. Or rather, it sort of does - sorta kinda - it is the meaning of 'what you know' that is frequently misunderstood. Let's unpack this.

First of all, it is important to recognise that 'know' in this sense relates to kennen, not wissen; connaitre, not savoir. It is rare that English lets us down, but in this we are poorer than French and German speakers, for we have only the one verb 'to know' to represent two very different concepts. 

What does it actually mean, then, to know a thing, in the sense that is meant? For us to know something, it is not necessary that that something have a real, material existence in the world, either now or at any previous time. It only needs to have a notional existence. Let's say you are going to write about dragons. There is no reason you shouldn't. As dragons do not exist, you, the writer, will create them as you see fit. Provided you create your own, and don't crib from Tolkien, Lackey et al, you will be as a god; yours the decision about how many legs they have, whether they can talk, fly, do magic... it's all yours.

They're your dragons, you see. Who knows them better than you, their creator? So it is with any fantasy creature, and with alien races and so on, too.

You are not, of course, perfectly free in this respect. You will need to ensure your work is internally consistent. But that would be the case whatever you wrote about. This is not what 'write what you know' means. 

Where this slogan comes into its own is in the realm of the mundane. You can write all you like about elves or space bunnies, but when you turn your keyboard to things that really exist, you had better be damn careful. The world is full of people who know all about police procedure, about mental illness, about ballroom dancing. They will mock you, some publicly, but worse, they will probably not finish reading your book. And good luck expecting someone who couldn't even finish your book ever to consider reading anything of yours again, ever. 

I can write about dog shows because I go to lots of them.

But many romance writers come a cropper when they try to write about ballroom dancing

This is the true meaning of 'write what you know'. And there's another aspect to it, too. Suppose you write about one of these things that you know nothing about, and somehow by a miracle you avoid making a total prat of yourself, what you write will still not be of the same quality as what you could write about something you do know about. It won't have the depth, the texture, the grace notes. Trust me on this, or better yet, try it out for yourself. Try writing a short piece set in a familiar location (say a hair salon if you're a hairdresser, or a cockpit if you're a pilot, or whatever). Then write the same piece, but this time set it in a place or situation you have never experienced. I am very, very sure that you will see a marked difference in quality between the two pieces.

To write effectively about a thing, you should experience it if at all possible

What if you Don't Have a Choice?

Okay, I'll grant that. Sometimes your plot absolutely requires a particular situation. For example, something I wrote last year required a woman to discover she had cancer and have an operation for it. The story absolutely required this; it could not exist without it. And I know nothing, less than nothing about anything medical. I know even less than the average non-medical lay person, because whenever anyone talks about it, I deliberately tune them out. I hate that shit.

Make no mistake, it is far, far better not to be in this situation, for it's fraught with peril, as we have discussed supra. Therefore, the first thing I would suggest you do if you are contemplating writing about something with which you're completely unfamiliar is to have a long think about how committed you really are to writing this story. In my case, I really, really was; for personal reasons which I shan't go into here, it meant a great deal to me to write this particular story and no other.

If you, too, decide this, then you at least know that it means a lot to you, and it is therefore worth a considerable effort. You will need to put in a great deal of research. It's time consuming and not always fun. Of course, if it is something you can possibly experience for yourself, like dog shows or ballroom dancing, then do so! Sign up for some ballroom lessons. Set aside a couple of weekends to hang out at dog shows. Allow plenty of time for this. It is this time spent in the field that is going to add the authenticity and grainy texture to your writing.

There will, of course, be some things you just cannot experience for yourself. In my own case, I could hardly go and get operated on for a tumour I did not have. I did, however, have to have some surgery, and I put off writing the story until after my operation. My experience did give me some insights as to what it is actually like, for instance, waking up in recovery with your guts all rearranged and sewn together. 

The second thing you will need to do is to line up some real experts. Partly so that you can pick their brains before you start writing, but also, and more importantly, so they can save you from embarrassing yourself. I had two vets, two nurses and two doctors read my story after I finished it. I was completely taken by surprise at the results. The vets and the doctors both schooled me righteously. The location of the tumour, it turned out, was completely incompatible with the symptoms I had described.  This means that I am going to have to rewrite huge chunks of the story. But I don't complain. That was the point of the whole exercise. The medical types I consulted have had a good laugh at my ignorance, but that's okay, they're my friends. Hey, I make people laugh for a living. But that is not the kind of laughter I want to see from the reading public, no indeed. 

There is no skipping this step, or even skimping on it. No gain without some pain, runs the proverb, and there are few things truer in life. But you'll be a better writer, and you'll have broadened your life experience and met interesting new people. What's not to like?

The Hardest Thing of All

That's enough about situations. There is another aspect to 'write what you know' that is even more vital, if possible. Whatever your story is 'about', in the final analysis, stories are about people. And the varieties of human experience cannot be faked, nor can they be invented, nor are they particularly accessible at second hand. For example, if you have never grieved for the death of someone whom you dearly loved, you cannot write about it. If you have never experienced birth, whether childbirth by you or your spouse, or participating at the birth of kittens or puppies, you are not equipped to write about it. Sure, the physical aspects of it can be got at by talking to a dog breeder or maternity nurse, but the interior life of it has to be experienced. Love, jealousy, shame, remorse, fear, triumph, hunger - these great absolutes must be experienced at first hand. 

This is one reason the writing of the very young is often facile, shallow and second-rate. They are attempting to write about areas of life where they have never set foot. Don't be that guy. Even if you are very young indeed, even if you are still a child at school, you have experienced life in your own ways. Perhaps you've been bullied. Perhaps you've been treated unfairly by a parent or teacher, or not believed when you were telling the truth. There have been plenty of times when you experienced life very intensely, whether good or bad, and these are the things you are equipped to write about.

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