Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Writing What You Know

"It's bullshit," the Muse cooed into my ear.  "That's a canard I've heard since Aesop first put ink on parchment, and I laugh every time."

Spinning around, I looked at my Muse with a furrowed brow.  "Surely the advice can't be all that worthless or so many people wouldn't be giving it."

"Lots of people used to believe leeches should be used to bleed an illness out of someone - that didn't make them right."

She was confusing me, but that was nothing new.  I rarely got a straight answer from her, and never at midnight.  Surely there was something to this "write what you know thing," so I continued to press my case.

"What about Steinbeck?  London?  Melville?  They all took their passion in life and turned it into novel form.  Their works are considered classics, and they did it by writing what they knew.  Yeah, they had to embellish some aspects to create a coherent story, but it was their life.  That's what made it so compelling."

"I didn't say it was never a good idea," she scolded.  "What I said was that it's not necessary to create a good story."

"Okay, I'm lost.  Perhaps you could fill me in."

Now she looked at me like I was a stupid child who wasn't grasping the concept of division.  "Look at the stuff you like to read.  I don't think JK Rowling really lived in a castle with her wizard friends and tried to create Horcruxes.  Arthur C. Clarke never rendezvoused with a starship that entered our solar system.  I'm pretty sure that Stephen King's only experience with a flu was the kind that gives you a weeklong fever rather than the kind that wipes out most of humanity."

"What are you getting at?"

"The key isn't to write what you know, but to write what you're passionate about.  That's the key to why all those slice of life stories from folks like Hemingway and Dickens did so well - they were passionate about writing those tales.  That they had real life experience helped give them perspective, but it would have been meaningless if they didn't tell those stories with passion."

"You're saying that I can write about something I know nothing about, so long as I'm passionate about it?" I asked.

"You need to be somewhat versed in it so you can bring some realism to the work, but that's the basic gist."  She paused long enough to cross her legs the other way.  "Novelists who bring emotion to their work draw others to them.  Think about Richard Matheson or Harry Turtledove - they never saw the afterlife or fought in the Civil War, but they researched them so what they needed could make their original idea plausible."

"So it's the idea that's paramount?"

"Exactly!" she exclaimed.  "You have to find an idea you love.  Once that's there, bringing the research in is but icing on the cake.  And if the idea brings you enough fire, your research and backstory will have enough emotion to come through in your work."

"Well, I've got lots of ideas I'm passionate about."

"Then that's where you focus.  A story about trekking through the desert with a dimwitted sidekick is worthless if you don't care why they're doing it.  However, if you believe in it, the rest will fall in line."

"Great - can you help me expand it?"

"Absolutely," she said with a wink.  "That's why I'm here.  I provide the push, you provide the fuel.  Together, we'll write what you know because your idea is truly the crux of that saying - you know your idea best and most intimately."


  1. Replies
    1. She's smart, but she can also be very frustrating at times. Usually that time is around midnight. :-P

  2. Ditto.

    The whole fun of writing fiction is in taking the anchor points that you have to reality - the losses in your life, the adventures and experiences you have had - and using them to spin a web of lies (thank you, Lawrence Block) into a story strong enough to fill the illusion of reality. Tolkien never met an orc or an elf, and yet Middle Earth is as real as this one.

    It's an amazing ride, and we take other people with us.


    1. Well said, Alicia. The best stories have a dose of realism to the fantasy we build.