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Write What You Know...?

It's a pretty old adage...but what does it mean?

The quote is attributed to Mark Twain, and if we take him at his word, he did, essentially, write what he knew firsthand. Twain is famous for writing about a world he was familiar with, generally times and places he'd experienced (though not always--I doubt he'd been to King Arthur's Court any more often than the Connecticut Yankee had, but you never know).  Still, we as writers clearly branch out and write what we don't know pretty often, too--for every writer inspired by his or her hometown, there's another writing about space colonies on asteroids or court intrigue in 16th century France.

So, can you effectively write what you don't know?

I'm going to say no and ask that you hold your horses to let me explain.  A writer can't write what he or she has no grasp on--but there are more ways that living through it to get a handle on a subject.  After all, writers write dozens of lives but only live one.  And fiction isn't memoir.

I think there are two ways to get at what you need to know to write what you haven't experienced.

Secondhand and Transferable Knowledge Also called "research."  You don't need to live through the Black Death to know what the symptoms are, or work for NASA to get a working knowledge of a shuttle launch.  This is what libraries, the internet, and experts are for.

There's also the stuff you already know--or the stuff you didn't know you knew.   No, you've never crawled across a desert nearly dying of thirst.  But you've been hot and exhausted and desperate for a Gatorade, right?  (If not, see the next section.)  Take the tactile and emotional elements of what you remember from that experience--the sweat tickling your back, the sun feeling like a blanket smothering you, the anxiety rising in your chest as you started to question--really question--if you were going to be ok.

Putting on Their Shoes In the movie Tropic Thunder, the catalyst for the film's action is that a director decides that his namby-pamby actors can't capture the fear, courage, and grit that was the Vietnam War unless they're put "in the sh!t" and forced to survive in the jungle for a while.  Sometimes namby-pamby writers can't capture the physical reality or emotional depth that accompanies what they want to write about unless they get closer to it.  I don't suggest getting dropped in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but you do have some options.

You might have an experience that can transfer--you've put on similar shoes and know how to walk in them.  Other times, you might need to find a way to put on those shoes to get yourself to a place where you can write what you know.

If you just have no clue about the tangibles--what does riding a horse actually feel like?  How loud is a gun when it's fired?--you can find out.  Do some firsthand research--find a situation as close to the one you want to write about and see if you can experience it (safely).  If you're trying to write a story about a military campaign and have never even camped, this might be a good time to see what it feels like to sleep outside.  If you're writing a historical ball scene but have never danced, you might want to seek out a way to experience that.

If you're at a loss about an emotional experience, you have two choices.  Go back and ask yourself if you do have any transferable knowledge--perhaps you haven't lost a spouse, but you can channel what grieving feels like from others losses.  But if you really have nothing to pull from, I'm going to suggest something radical--maybe you aren't ready to write that particular story yet.  There's a reason that writers can have lifelong careers and often get better as they get older--when you experience more, you have more to write from.  We've all read attempts at capturing an emotional moment that fall flat--it's probably because the writer wasn't ready to tackle that subject yet.

What do you think?  Do you need to write what you know--or know what you write?  Or can a good writer create a fictional experience without personal experience to pull from?

Comments

  1. It's so interesting that you posted this as I read a quote yesterday that said writing what you don't know is best simply because you have to expand your knowledge (through research) in order to do it. I have to agree on that score. Besides, if I only wrote what I knew, my books would be SO boring! :-)

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  2. Haha, when I saw the title of this post, I immediately thought of something I read in a writing book a long time ago (afraid I don't remember which one!) as a response to that adage of "write what you know" and that's that, yes, you need to "know what you write". If you're writing about something you don't know, you need to find out about it, through research in books, but also experiential research (reading a book on 18th century homes won't necessarily tell you what they smell like, that sort of detail often comes with experience) and (as you cover in your next post!) transferable experiences.

    Having said that, I think you can 'blag it' and write without experience to an extent, but I wager that that scene won't be as gripping and real as it would be if you had found some way to 'know' that experience, or, if it is, then you've drawn upon some transferable experience without even realising.

    For example, I've never been in any sort of battle, yet I've received a lot of praise for a battle scene in A Thief & a Gentlewoman. It involves an enraged elephant attacking, while our heroine must battle it riding a sabre tooth cat. Needless to say, I definitely don't have experience of (a) being attacked by an elephant or (b) riding a sabre cat! I don't even have experience of being in a real fight.

    So how the heck did I write a scene that's been called so vivid and gripping? Reflecting upon it, I must have drawn upon various experiences: I've ridden horses, I've been in big crowds in the rush of London and the buffeting of gigs and nightclubs, I've sparred in karate and wrestled with my dad when I was younger ... And, a skill I think a lot of avid readers and writers have, is to be able to read or watch a scene and vividly imagine it, placing themselves in the place of that character, feeling every tumble and strain of the fight in some swashbuckling adventure.

    So, I think all of those things must have informed my writing of that scene, and I think it's exactly this sort of approach that enables us as writers to write about what we don't know while knowing what we write.

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