Rowenna of Rowenna, Writing has made a couple of interesting posts over the past week about that age-old writing adage of ‘writing what you know’. She asks whether we should write what we know and get to know that thing if we don’t already and in her second post on the subject, she discusses how we can write out about something we simply cannot experience by, rather like in job applications, using our transferable knowledge and experience.
Go over and read her posts, they’re interesting and she touches upon some ideas that are really important to writers, but which we don’t often stop to think about after the new writer initiation:
Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Write what you know.
New Writer: But I don’t know about aliens!
Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Well, what that really means is know what you write.
New Writer: Oh right, so I research the subject, then?
Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Er, yeah, pretty much.
New Writer: Cool, I’ll get going to the library, then. Cheers!
Writing Book/Seasoned Writer: Hmm … I was sure there was more to it than that …
So, Rowenna got me thinking and I wrote an unreasonably long comment on her post (sorry!), which I thought I’d expand into a proper blog post, since it’s so important for writing, particularly if you write fantasy, sci-fi or historical fiction.
Many, many years ago, I read that writers should ‘write what you know’, and felt confused and disappointed: did that mean I should only write about the life of a not-quite teenage girl? Did that mean my only setting would be a boring little suburb of London? Did that mean all my characters had to, essentially, be people I knew? What about the elves and magic and saving the world that I wanted to write about?! What about all those fantasy books I read – I was fairly sure no authors actually lived in rip-offs of Middle Earth…
And then, in another book on writing (I’m afraid I don’t remember which one, as I said, this was long ago, in the mists of history!) I saw a response to that adage that said you need to ‘know what you write’. So, if you want to write about something you don’t know of through your life, you need to find out about it. Hit the library (this was in the infancy of ‘teh interwebz’), take a course, pay attention in history class, and you, too, can ‘know what you write’ and are, thereafter, allowed by the writing Gods to write about life in a keep because you’ve read a book about their inner workings.
What about me?
But that’s still not the whole story. What about those elves? I can’t find out about them in a history book! And that’s where the bane of fantasy and sci-fi writers comes in: maps! Or, rather, own world research. You might be inspired by mythology, you can find out about that with book learning, but your elves might be different. What’s your world like? Look at real world examples, think about your cultures, write notes to keep it all straight in your head.
Yep, we all know this stuff, and yet that’s still not it.
We also need 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. Then there are, as Rowenna covers in one of her posts, transferable experiences.
Having said that, I think you can ‘blag it’ and write without experience to an extent, but I wager that the scene won’t be as gripping and real as it would have been if you had found some way to ‘know’ that experience. If it is, then I suspect 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. Sounds a bit bonkers, but bear with me – it involves an enraged elephant attacking, while our heroine, Quin, 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 apparently so vivid and gripping? Reflecting upon it, I must have drawn upon various experiences:
- I’ve ridden horses so I know how it feels to move so quickly on the back of another creature.
- I’ve been in big crowds in the rush of London and the buffeting of gigs and nightclubs, so I’ve experienced that chaos.
- I’ve sparred in karate and wrestled with my dad when I was younger, so I know what it’s like to react and rely on instinct and reflexes. When I’ve not done so well, I’ve also experienced tumbling across the floor, not knowing which way is up!
- 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. Novels and films can inform us and, if we have that imagination and empathy, can vicariously give us experience to some extent.
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 what we don’t know while knowing what we write.
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