"Write what you know"??

8 years ago | Senna Black (Member)

Hey everyone!

I just posted a rather tongue-in-cheek blog post about why "write what you know" is lame advice for writers. What do you guys think? Is it true that if you write what you know you'll have a more compelling story which will touch your readers? What about when you're writing genre? Can you write what you know in a fantasy setting? Or is the effort doomed to failure?

What might be a practical framework for writing what you know in genre fiction?

The two guidelines I propose in the blog are:

1) Write what you know, or what other people probably wouldn't know either, and

2) Write whatever you d-mned well please!

What do you guys think?

If you're curious, you can check out the blog post here: http://www.to-jovan.net/author-talking-why-write-what-you-know-sucks/

Read responses...

Responses

  1. Erin Klitzke (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Gah, I wish I'd been able to read and comment on that before I went to work!

    Very well-written blog entry and you're very right. I agree and utterly hate the "Write what you know" adage, and I see more and more in writing magazines and the like telling new (and established) writers that it's not necessarily good advice. BETTER advice in that case would be "do your research" as a corollary to "make shit up" and "write what you know or what other people probably wouldn't know, either."

  2. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    "Write what you know" can mean a lot of different things.

    R.A. Heinlein in "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" had a protagonist who was a writer, after retiring from the military. That character (presumably channelling Heinlein's experience as a navy man turned writer) said that it was easier to write about things he didn't know anything about -- woman, romance, mysteries -- but that when he tried to write about the army the details got in the way of the story. Description and knowledge could sometimes bog down the emotional plot.

    But at the same time, Heinlein had a deep understanding of the science behind his sci-fi, including ballistics, biology, history, psychology and physics. He just didn't let his research get in the way of the needs of his characters. I think that stories needed to be rooted in some reality, but then the treetops can soar in the heights of imagination too.

    W.P. Kinsella is known for saying "you don't need to commit suicide to write about it" -- there are some experiences that can't be communicated directly. But people can suffer loss, or talk with those who deal with trauma and have a grounding in the reality. It depends on the subject and the audience.

  3. Dary (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    "Can you write what you know in a fantasy setting?"

    Of course you can, and any writer who can't apply the real world to a fantastical setting isn't worth reading.

    "Write what you know" shouldn't be taken too literally.

  4. Senna Black (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Erin - ta. ;) Slightly self-indulgent, but "write what you know" is advice which haunts the Fantasy NaNoWriMo forum! So of course every year in November when my defenses are down, I develop a complex about it. Haha.

    Dary - you're absolutely right - in fact I was very careful not to use "write what you know" as a straw man. I wanted to explore the dimensions of what one "knows" - so looking at facts one knows and emotional experience one has had.

    As for applying the real world to a fantasy setting, one of the arguments I make in the blog post is that it is hubris to think that real world experiences have any bearing on the experience of the folk of our fantasy world. Someone posted a thought provoking reply over there (which I am about to approve, LOL) which basically argued that in fantasy, "write what you know" in fact is given precedence over reflecting "reality". We concentrate on giving people characters who are accessible to them rather than trying to actually reflect what would likely be the views of those characters given their culture and upbringing.

    Gavin - I agree that the answer is (as always) a balance between writing things you can do justice to, but also following your imagination! Thought-provoking example too.

  5. Erin Klitzke (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Ahhh, Chris Baty's insanity, how I love thee!

    That said about half the stuff you'll find on the NaNo forums is stuff parroted out of creative writing classes and "old adage" advice! Don't develop a complex. There's some value in putting yourself and your knowledge into your writing, but in genre fiction we're making a lot of things up, whether based on research or personal experience (I used to frequent the science fiction boards myself).

  6. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Put "write what you know" aside for a second.

    Write what you want.

    Do you KNOW what you want to write? If so, then you are writing what you know.

    Problem solved. ;-)

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  7. Erin Klitzke (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I've been thinking about this on and off for the past couple days now, and it struck me that genre fiction writers do write what they know. Before I get pelted with rotten fruit, let me explain.

    Readers of genre fiction depend on writers for more than just a good story, they depend on us for a consistent world with its own set of rules, boundaries, history, and the like. In the case of writing what you know, it is the consistency of the world that's important. You write the world that YOU know, because you created the world, but ensuring that you don't break any of the rules for the world you created is up to you. In that, you're writing what you, and only you, know.

  8. Kess (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I agree that this blanket advice is misleading and often misunderstood. When I talk about this in a writing group, I usually phrase it: "Write what you know, or can convincingly fake." Being consistent and convincing is the key, not being a slave to personal experience. You have to be able to get your reader to suspend disbelief and trust you, and this is a big part of how to do that. If you can't fake the knowledge convincingly, it's time to do more research/worldbuilding!

  9. allantmichaels (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I always think of what Stephen King says about this:

    "People always say, write what you know. 'Makes you wonder about Stephen King, doesn't it?' To this I respond, I have the heart of a 10 year old boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk."

  10. S. D. Youngren (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    From the blog entry Ellipsis linked to:

    Plus (I have saved my most persuasive argument for last): only writing what you know is no fun. So don’t bother! Let us go forth, genre writers all, and MAKE SHIT UP! \o/

    I understand that this was said humorously, but I'd still like to point out that, considering the number of memoirs and memoir-writers out there, it seems that not everyone agrees with this. And even fiction writers do not all write (or want to write) speculative stuff.

    Kess wrote: When I talk about this in a writing group, I usually phrase it: "Write what you know, or can convincingly fake."

    The key word here is "convincingly." Not everyone is a very good judge of his abilities, and some people I've known seem to feel that it's the reader's responsibility to make sense of--and believe--whatever nonsense is put in front of him. Keep an open mind about your abilities and what you're doing, research, research, research--and then, if possible, show the result to someone in a position to know.

    I'm currently reading a novel by a well-known, non-web female author whose male characters (at least in this novel) are all excessively strange and rather feminine. Perhaps she did this on purpose; I don't know. But I find it embarrassing, and I'm only reading the thing . . . and I'm not male. There are a lot of ways one can go wrong.

    --Shelley

    Rowena's Page: http://sdy.org/rowena/ — "This is my life, Mom. Not a Jane Austen novel."
  11. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I think "research research research" is good advice. One way to interpret "write what you know" is "if you don't know anything about it, why include it?"

    An example of that is my brother really liked the fantasy novel "Eragon" and he thought it was interesting that a teenager wrote it and got published. My dad read it and said it was "good for what it was" but he could tell an inexperienced writer made it -- and the first, most glaring thing was that they were growing or harvesting peas at a time of year when that would be impossible. I was like "why would peas be a big deal?" but my dad was like "why include them at all if you con't know what you're talking about?" It was a fantasy novel, they could have been harvesting "flourrfle" or "spandaberries" and my dad would have had nothing to complain about because they were fantasy instead of something he knew about.

    So when it comes to a real world" fact, you should write what you know or research to find out -- because readers are smart. I started writing a bank robbery scene last year and did actual research into crime statistics and police procedures and learned that the majority of the time you can't get into a bank vault because of time locks -- so all those cop shows and stories of vault robberis in movies are pretty inaccurate. So I made it impossible for the crooks to get into the vault because I had learned an actual fact and couldn't pretend to myself that I hadn't.

  12. Senna Black (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I was like "why would peas be a big deal?" but my dad was like "why include them at all if you con't know what you're talking about?" It was a fantasy novel, they could have been harvesting "flourrfle" or "spandaberries" and my dad would have had nothing to complain about because they were fantasy instead of something he knew about.

    I so so so so agree with this. If you're going to include something like that, make sure it's right. Or make sure people can't identify what time of year it is, LOL.

    Although what still bothers me more is those things where the gap can't be filled with research. Eg: how it feels to have a parent die when you're quite young. Will someone who still has both their parents ever be able to do enough research to convey the emotions of such an event convincingly?

    The harvesting of peas I can research and hence "know"; what about those things you can't "know" without experiencing them?

  13. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Although what still bothers me more is those things where the gap can't be filled with research. Eg: how it feels to have a parent die when you're quite young. Will someone who still has both their parents ever be able to do enough research to convey the emotions of such an event convincingly?

    Well, actors do this all the time. You don't research it as much as you try to find resonant similarities in your own life, think about how it affected you, and make a partially informed and partially intuitive leap. I think all you really have to do is get just far enough for the reader to buy into it, then the reader will take it the rest of the way.

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  14. S. D. Youngren (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Ellipsis wrote: Although what still bothers me more is those things where the gap can't be filled with research. Eg: how it feels to have a parent die when you're quite young.

    Sure you can research such things. Psychology/sociology books, self-help books, memoirs . . . They won't fully give you the emotions, reactions, etc., but they will give you a good start. For a fantasy setting, even research into death and burial rituals in various cultures can help enrich your story.

    My copy of Hope Edelman's Motherless Daughters, which I confess I haven't read yet, not only contains lots of first-person accounts of daughters who have lost their mothers but also, on the back jacket, several testimonials from women who went through the same experiences and feelings Edelman wrote about. As I said, I haven't read it yet, but if I were writing a story on such a subject, I definitely would.

    ubersoft wrote: Well, actors do this all the time.

    Actors go to acting school. I've never taken an acting class myself, but I'm guessing they teach quite a few of these things there.

    I think all you really have to do is get just far enough for the reader to buy into it, then the reader will take it the rest of the way.

    "Just far enough" can actually be pretty far, especially if the reader knows something about the experience/state in question. Intuition can he helpful, of course, if that's one of your strengths, but I'd start by doing the research and then building from that rather than simply trusting to a guess. You lose too much if your story doesn't ring true.

    --Shelley

    Rowena's Page: http://sdy.org/rowena/ — "This is my life, Mom. Not a Jane Austen novel."

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