About our guest blogger:
Erik Stearns is an artist and short story writer living in the Washington D.C. area, who unfortunately loves his day job too much to quit… so far. He is drawn to overgrown railroad tracks, abandoned buildings, and forgotten mythologies. His writing often makes use of fantastic elements in uncharacteristically dark or irreverent ways. His flash-ficiton has been published on the Potomac Review’s website, and he is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Don’t write what you know?
There’s a long running tug-of-war in the sphere of Writerly Advice between “write what you know” and “don’t write what you know.” (It is, presumably, only a debate in the fiction community: I would hope that authors of medical texts and airplane repair manuals do not struggle with this question.)
Based on my own completely unscientific Google sampling, the “don’t write what you know” contingent seems to be winning by a decent margin. Which is good news for me. Not because I side with them – I don’t strategically pick subjects outside the boundaries of my experience. It just works out that way. A lot.
Let me give you an example:
I recently sat down to compose a story around the nugget of an idea I’d been toying with. I was free to pick almost any setting I liked, provided that it had an Old World feel. So I let my fingers wander around the keyboard for a few minutes and discovered (to my surprise) that I’d written an absolutely perfect opening line which very explicitly established the setting as a mountain forest, outside Belgrade, on a bitterly cold December night in 1781.
Why Belgrade? I just liked the sound of the name. Apart from that I knew nothing about the place. And I chose 1781 because I wanted my main character to wear a red tri-cornered hat. Really. That’s how my creative process works.
So after I finished my first draft I thought it might be a good idea to go back and do a little research on 18th century Belgrade. You know: make sure the place actually existed in 1781, and that there wereforests and mountains nearby, and that it really does snow in December. I figured I should do this before the story got published and found its way into the hands of the Belgradian Historical Society.
So, I went online. From the Wikipedia page for Belgrade I discovered two interesting things:
One, it is in Serbia, and,
Two, I also knew nothing about Serbia.
You see, I didn’t start out looking for trouble. It’s just that I’m the sort of person who’ll wander into a biker bar during their fifth annual Binge Drinking and Ass Kicking Festival because from the outside the place looks like it has a nice ambiance. I’m not Vin Diesel; I’m Mr. Magoo.
I expect that this happens to a number of writers. Sooner or later you’ll want to have a character who’s a one-legged entomologist or a safe-cracker who escaped the police by rafting to Trinidad, and before you know it you’re downloading pictures of prosthetic limbs and studying tidal maps of the Caribbean Sea — which, incidentally, is where Trinidad is; a fact I did not need to know until I wrote the name “Trinidad” in that last sentence on a whim, forty seconds ago.
Now you could pull some sleight of hand. Shy away from any description of the false leg. Have your safe-cracker land on a completely fictitious island, or maybe just take a bus to your home town. It’s safer. It’s certainly faster.
But research can bring so much more to the final product than encyclopedic accuracy. The real world is brimming with quirky little facts ready to fill those voids in your imagination. They’re out there, just waiting for you to stumble across them, dust them off, hold them up to the sunlight and declare, “I can use that…”
I used to try to plan my stories out to thenth degree. I still like to have some idea of the overall structure, but sometimes a character crouches down to tie her shoe and I catch a glint of steel where her sock should be, and everything goes out the window. It probably means I’m reading when I should be writing. But when I do finally set the words down it will be with a measure of confidence. At least I won’t be looking over my shoulder for enraged Belgradians.
Besides, it gives me the perfect excuse to spend hours surfing the web, learning the most interesting things.
Which of course leads to more ideas. And more stories.