Posted by: kshayes513 | March 26, 2009

Why Do I Have to “Write What You Know?”

When I was first starting to write fantasy and science fiction, I got very defensive whenever someone insisted (usually in a book or article about writing) that I should only “write what I know.”  After all, what did I know about being a medieval Arab magician, or living with desert nomads?

I’ve since learned that most people who interpret “write what you know” in the most literal sense of “only write about your own experiences” are those who believe that the only worthwhile fiction is “literary fiction” by writers who draw their raw material straight from their own lives. (Watching these folks try to account for the likes of Michael Chabon or Ursula K. LeGuin is amusing, but that’s another post).

“Write what you know,” or in this blog’s context, “build a world that you know,” is actually very good advice, for several reasons. Part the first:

It’s easier!

Writing about what you know always takes a lot less time than writing about the unfamiliar. Take setting. You want to create a story about mythical gods crossing over into our world (Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or almost anything by Charles de Lint). You could set it in India if you like Hindu gods; but if you live in Minnesota or Toronto, and you’ve never been to India, you’ll save yourself a lot of time by setting your story in your home city. Instead of weeks of research on the exotic setting, you can just choose from locales in the city you already know, and that gets you writing a lot quicker. (It also makes the story more immediate and interesting: gods in India, so what? The place is packed with them. But who’d expect actual gods in a small Minnesota town?)

What you know goes far beyond where you live. If you’ve had a job for a while, or a parent worked in one industry for years, or you have a hobby or interest you’re passionate about, then you probably know enough about that to use it as raw material.  It’s no coincidence that many books and movies have writers as their protagonists, because the people who wrote them know about being a writer. Books about a struggling writer may be a dime a dozen, but a book by an ex-jockey about a murder at an English race track; or a book by a scholar of ancient languages and legends, about legendary magical races who speak functioning languages that he invented–those are fascinating settings with plenty of accurate detail that their authors didn’t have to research.

When I was first developing stories in Khasran, my plot took me out into the desert, to nomads modeled on the Bedouin. Easy enough to read about Bedouin culture, but I realized that my hero was going to have to ride and herd camels, and I knew nothing about them, had never even been close to one. This was a stumper; could I find books describing camel behavior?  I had the disturbing thought that I might have to go volunteer at a zoo or visit a circus and spend quality time with camels. Then I looked out my window. There was my family’s riding school, an environment I’d known and worked in for my entire life. Can I say, “D’uh?”

Horse nomads. History is full of them, starting with the Scythians, and finishing with our own American version, the Plains Indians.  Horses and riding was one thing I wouldn’t have to research. I still wonder why it took me so long to connect what I knew best, with the needs of my story. Let’s hope you’re quicker to see the obvious in your own worldbuilding!

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Responses

  1. Actually, what’s amusing is watching panic-stricken SF/F writers constantly attacking “literary fiction,” as you do above. The advantage of being a “literary writer” like Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood lies in being able to dive into genre whenever one wishes and to then go off and explore other territory, whereas SF/F writers are pigeonholed into sticking to their own playground.

    The smug superiority of such comments just goes to show that the genre still suffers from a major inferiority complex.

  2. So glad to have provided some amusement! Though if you reread my post, you’ll see I was taking a dig not at the entire genre of “literary fiction,” (which I have been known to read from time to time outside of a classroom!) but rather at people who believe, aggressively and didactically, that realistic literary fiction is the only worthwhile literature.

    As for the inferiority complex, of course that exists, not just in SF but in all popular genres. How could it not, when the literary writers and critics have been telling the rest of us for so long that the books we like are inferior to the literature that they sanction?

    Can you give a concise definition of “literary fiction” for discussion purposes? I can define most subgenres in my own field, but I admit that my definition of literary is mainly “I know it when I read it.” It seems to me that literary fiction tends to be at least as interested in the stylistic effects of language, structure and other devices as it is in plot, character and story, but that’s as far as I’d venture for a description

  3. Whoosh! Hee hee.

    I wouldn’t presume to define Literary Fiction myself, it’s a very subjective matter – as in it can’t be measured so much as experienced. Having said that I find many arguments on merit can be resolved with “Numbers don’t Lie” and I know it’s not a fair argument either. Selling 72 million copies of a book is impressive enough to render moot questions of whether it is Literary or not.

    Now back on topic – Writing what you know. There is a very good point made in how that doesn’t have to limit your writing. Rather than making up a list of things I know and only writing stories that involve them. The idea is to use my personal knowledge in my stories/worlds in ways that makes more sense than describing something I know nothing about. Desert nomads have camels – right? No, K.S. Hayes’ nomads ride horses, mine would ride motorbikes (with big balloon tires).

    Recently I was working on a story, it was far from literary, in fact it was kinda cliche – aliens attack the planet ala Will Smith movie. I know nothing about aliens and warfare, not in a practical applied sense at least. But I do know video games. I was raised on them, and I’ve likely fought off a few hundred alien invasions in my time. In fact at one point a few years ago I was in the top 2% of players of one particular game. People were trying to recruit me to play with them in competitions.

    This led to my hero being a video gamer, one of many recruited to fight off the aliens. This immediately filled my world with distinctive dialogue, egos and attitudes that made my cheesy little story just that little bit different and unique.

  4. I have this image of motorbike-riding gamers zooming off to save the world from aliens–maybe with game consoles mounted on their handlebars? hee hee.
    When your story hits print, let us know, it sounds like fun!

    And one more thought on the perceived gulf between literary and popular fiction. Charles Dickens was considered too commercial and lowbrow by the literary elite of his day. And so was the king of English literature, Shakespeare. This thought is always the argument clincher for me. Longevity is the only real proof of artistic value. 100 years from now, people probably will still be reading Updike. I guarantee they’ll still be reading Stephen King!


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