One of the first pieces of advice a writer usually gets is “write what you know.” I think in non-fiction writing, this axiom is probably important. Good cooks write about cooking. A person who fixes cars starts a blog about car repair. Someone who collects comic books begins a Fanzine. Doctors write for medical journals.
Too often, even in the world of fiction, we hear this guidance being offered to budding writers. It’s not bad advice, per se…but it’s often misunderstood. Or worse, it’s taken too literally, thus leaving us with nothing more than autobiographies masked by pseudonyms.
Think about it: If all fiction writers did this, many classics would vanish.
I’m sure Ray Bradbury never visited Mars.
J.R.R. Tolkien never met a hobbit.
C.S. Lewis never encountered a magical wardrobe.
George Orwell didn’t live in 1984, nor had he heard talking animals on a farm.
Margaret Mitchell never owned a slave.
Recently, I picked up a book that was supposed to take place in a Baptist church near Dallas and the story was about the new Pastor and his challenges. The story included a gay son and a church-sponsored "ex-gay" ministry. Because of my background and my proximity, I was intrigued. However, as I read the book, several things became quickly obvious:
(1) the author had never been in the ministry,
(2) he hadn’t talked with Baptist pastors to learn what about the ministry, especially what it’s like to go to a new church,
(3) the author knew almost nothing about "ex-gay" programs, and
(4) he had no idea how the Baptist Church governance operates.
The inaccuracies were so conspicuous that I stopped reading after five chapters.
While “write what you know” doesn’t imply that we must be an expert on their subject, or that we have first-hand experience on all of our subjects, but it does require that we know our subject, and have some kind of emotional connection. Otherwise, it won’t resonate with our readers.
If “write what you know” means anything, it insists that we transcend our own limited experiences to tell a story. That’s where research comes in. In other words, “write what you know” becomes “know what you write!” Write what you know…as long as you know it.
Author’s note: Did you know that many of the leading writers of gay erotica novels are straight females? (Or so I’ve been told….) Always makes me wonder how they do their research.
Writer are observers. And creators.
We observe human behavior, and create characters.
We observe emotions, and create motivation.
We observe events, and create stories.
We observe cause, effect and consequences, and create plots.
My writing grows out of my life experiences. I write about the South because that’s where I grew up. I write about the influence—good and bad—of the powerful religious culture, because I was part of it. But I still have to do lots of research. (e.g., I spent months learning about Retrograde Amnesia for my last novel. I didn’t want it to come across like a made-for-TV movie.) I also work to make sure that religious beliefs and practices I don’t share are presented fairly.
It was Mark Twain who’s credited with saying “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”
If you write about orphans on the planet Kandixious, show me their pain.
If you write about the sacrifice of soldiers in battle, let me feel their courage.
If you write about serial killers, give me insight into their motivation.
“Write what you know” is a place to begin, but not a place to stop.
It’s good advice…except when it’s not.
It’s good advice…except when you don’t know.
Write TRUTH, even though it’s fiction.
Be AUTHENTIC, even when you’re telling a story.
Make it REAL, even when it’s made up.
Show EMOTIONS, even though they’re faked.
Make it BELIEVABLE, even when it’s impossible.
Have you had the reading experience of not "believing" a story because the author hadn't done proper research?
I welcome your comments and insights.