Posted by: kshayes513 | March 29, 2009

“Write What You Know” part 3

I’ve talked about using your own life, and doing good research to expand your knowledge. Now we get to the meat of it, the reason it really is essential to “write what you know.”

Some years ago, I read a literary short story in a prestigious magazine. The story had an equestrian setting, and its theme was the adult protagonist’s discovery of her mother as a vibrant sensual woman who kept her sexuality hidden even from her husband.  Yeah, I know–horses. sexuality. If I’d known the story was heading for that Freudian cliche, I’d have dropped the magazine in the wastebasket before I got past page 1. But I didn’t, so I still have it to use as a dire example.

The story described the family farm’s new crop of baby horses as “the new spring ponies.” Wrong. Any horse-crazy 8-year-old knows that a baby horse is a foal, not a pony, nor even a colt (though I could have forgiven “colt,” at least it means a young horse, not a small horse).

The story described a horse show, where each class was introduced by a bugle fanfare. Wrong. Bugles introduce horse races, not horse show events.

The story described the protagonist’s daughter, an experienced competitor, riding around the show ring with her “big eyes” fixed on the judge. So wrong that this one made me wonder if the writer had ever been to any sports competition, let alone a horse show. The first rule of horse shows and most other judged competitions is: pretend the judges are invisible.

And finally the story gets to the big Freudian reveal, as the daughter learns that her mother used to leave her marriage bed on summer nights and go for a midnight gallop on the stallion, riding bareback and naked under her nightgown, then return to her bed with no one the wiser. Hysterically and preposterously wrong!

The writer was all lathered up about the naked woman on the naked horse. My reaction was to laugh myself silly. First, at the notion of any woman wanting to climb naked on any horse at any speed let alone a gallop. Naked riding leaves way too little protection for sensitive parts! As for returning to bed with no one the wiser, I said “lathered up” a moment ago, and that’s exactly what would happen. The rider’s thighs and the horse’s back would be covered with sweat and loose horsehair, and both would smell distinctly horsey. No way could the husband or the grooms miss that kind of evidence in the morning!

There’s no excuse for any of these errors, especially from a reputable writer in a prestigious magazine.  All the writer (or the magazine’s editors; and I blame them nearly as much) had to do to check on the realism of her setting,  was hand a draft of the story to anyone who had real experience with horses.  But this writer couldn’t be bothered. She committed the cardinal worldbuilding sin of making up the details for an unfamiliar subject, instead of taking the time to do a little honest research.

If you haven’t got the point by now, here it is: write what you know and make dead sure you know what you write, whether you know it from experience or from research. Because if you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll destroy any credibility you may have with your audience, and they’ll never trust you again, not only for that story or game scenario, but for every future one you offer.


  1. All I can say is:


  2. Umm… can you be a little more specific?

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