Monday, February 7, 2011

Knowing What You Write

"Write what you know." It's one of the major commandments of writing. Every writer knows it. Everyone offering writing advice seems to spout it at some point. And y'know, it is important. When a writer knows what they're talking about, their work has this air of authenticity to it. It's got more emotional punch. And in fiction (and memoir), you need that punch and authenticity, or the story's likely be be "only okay" and not "great".

Unfortunately, the idea(s) behind "write what you know" have lost something in the transition to four monosyllabic words that will stick in people's heads, and this means that there are multiple interpretations for what those words actually mean. The more common interpretations I've come across are:

  1. "Only write about things you've personally experienced or already know about." This tends to be the first-encounter, gut reaction type interpretation. It's easily proven wrong. Science fiction and fantasy authors cannot be writing only about what they know, or else there's some massive conspiracy to keep all the magic and futuristic technology a secret from the global population.  People who write murder mysteries can't all be encountering dead bodies or tracking criminals. You get the idea.
  2. "Write about real human experience and emotion." Good. If you can get at the real heart of a situation, the real heart of your characters' response to the conflict, then you're getting somewhere. Heartstrings will be tugged. Tears will be jerked. Pages will be turned. Emotions are important.
  3. Stephen King's advice to never use a word you find in a thesaurus probably counts as "write what you know" as well. You have to know the words you're using. You have to know how to construct phrases and sentences and paragraphs and scenes. You have to know the mechanics. (Patricia C. Wrede has recently finished a blog series on just this. Marvelous read.)

There's a fourth interpretation that pops up occasionally and which I think, personally, is what "write what you know" is really trying to get at. "Do your research." You can have the mechanics perfected. You can describe pain and fear and desperation perfectly. But your story's still going to be flat and unconvincing if you don't have your facts straight. Hollywood sci-fi is marvelous at getting facts wrong.

Yes, personal experience and knowledge is going to be part of this. When humans write about other humans, there's going to be carry-over of actions, habits, emotions, personalities, politics, opinions, fears, etc., etc. And writers, I've noticed, tend to be some of the most voracious consumers of trivia and knowledge out there. That's going to feature in their writing too. Do I really need to know when and why turquoise paint appeared on Coast Salish and Haida totem poles? No, but I do, and it might be important someday.* And I know what it feels like to stand on a Pacific beach, at the top of a mountain, in the middle of a river, on a savannah**, on a boat, and on a sand dune. Funnily enough, there's a Pacific beach in the WIP…

But the research can't end there. Because characters and writers are generally separate people (memoir being the main exception), characters do things and see things that their writers aren't familiar with, and which their writers are liable to get wrong if they don't double-check things. In the past few months, I've read books set in 1920s New York slums, a POW camp on a volcanic planet, Highgate Cemetery, a London archive, and 12th-century Europe. I've read about pimps and junkies, witches, aliens, knights and princesses, and superheroes. The characters and settings have all felt real, because the authors took the time to read books, interview people, visit the settings, and learn new skills. Of course, they've also felt real because the authors took their personal experience with emotion and extrapolated what it would feel like to be Character X in Location Y, but. My point is. They did research. They made sure they knew what they were writing about, so that they could write what they knew. And it showed.

Of course, it's easy to get bogged down in research and never get anywhere close to finishing the story. That hasn't happened with my WIP, but I've certainly gotten sidetracked slightly. There was one delightful evening spent reading up on alternatives to rockets for space flight… I can see myself getting sucked into research at some point, though. There's so much to know! So many details! And how many are too many? I want to be as authentic as possible, after all. But I also know that I only have to know enough to make everything seem real and believable, and not cheese anyone off. I don't need to know what every species of seaweed in my Pacific beach setting is called. Nobody even looks at the seaweed. It's not pivotal to the story. We don't even need to know it's there. But I do need to find someone I can run a handful of Mandarin phrases by, because I know someone's going to call me on it if I don't.

What does "write what you know" mean to you? Do you agree with my take on it? Have you ever gotten sucked into too much research?

* Writers also like to share. Turquoise paint only showed up post-contact, because Europeans supplied the native peoples with the ingredients for the paint. Similarly, the golden age of mask and pole carving was also post-contact, because of how easy it became to get iron tools. Now you know.
** Not in Africa, though, more's the pity.


Brooke Johnson said...

I had a professor in college that swore by the "write what you know" bull. He was convinced that we, as college-age writers, couldn't write engaging stories because we didn't know anything about the world. I hated that professor.

I'm with you on the research angle. I think that we can write whatever we darn well please as long as we give it as much authenticity as we can muster, or find.

NerdyGirl said...

It's funny you bring up Stephen King, because I literally think of him every time I read a vampire or zombie story. His carefully researched grave robbing scene in Pet Sematary (specifically the part about how most coffins are protected by concrete vaults or liners) always comes to mind when I'm reading/seeing a scene where an undead being simply crawls out of a coffin.

I wish more writers would do some good old fashioned research.