Don’t Write What You Know?

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.

Erik

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19 thoughts on “Don’t Write What You Know?

  1. If I only wrote about what I know then my writing would become stale and limited. I think the better adage is “write about what you want to know”, after all, researching is so much easier these days and enlightenment is the true means of happiness, grasshopper.
    Happy Pages,
    CricketMuse

  2. Great example of one of those writing policies that we all stumble over at implementing. I think you should write what you can imagine and research. But more importantly what you can make the reader feel like you know.

    I draw on my experiences. Losing a loved one, falling in love, feeling embarassed. Those are the what you know that you have to mine for good writing. Tap into that and you can spin a tale about a blind elf living in Antarctica who befriends a time traveling rabbit who speaks Chinese and make it believable. 🙂

  3. I’m with you, to me the saying refers to the details. I like to do short stories and I try to extend myself all the time, new characters, situations, etc. When I’m not personally familiar with my setting or some time in history, etc., I research the heck out of it online. You just want to be able to add a couple of details here and there, enough to make it seem real. While it helps to write what you know, it’s a good thing that not everyone does or a lot of famous authors in history would have been silent.

  4. There’s a difference though, between choosing features in characters and setting that you’re familiar with, and writing what you know. At least, that’s what I think. After all, a lot of my stories take place in the woods, and my protagonists have the same beliefs as I do, but their lives are a lot different than mine, and I don’t think I write what I know. But if we didn’t draw some features from our lives, the reader would be looking at a sketch, not a painting.

    1. On behalf of Erik:

      I suppose to me, the phrase “write what you know” has always been about standing on firm ground with the details: what it’s like to hold a particular job, how the legal system works a particular place and time, things like that. Characters can have almost any personality or inner life that we want them to have, provided it’s consistent with the setting. But I’m curious: in what way do you think that you don’t write what you know?

      Erik

      1. I’ve always thought of writing what you know as drawing from your personal experience. But I don’t write stories about characters like me, or anyone I know. They have similar personalities to people I know, and the setting is similar to the places I’ve grown up in, but I never had a friend who had all the gangleaders wrapped around her fingers, or a friend who drove a motorcycle into the ocean to get away from a jealous boyfriend. In setting and personalities, I guess I do write what I know, but the character’s skills, and the story itself is completely different than anything I know.

        1. On behalf of Erik:

          Here is where I think writing and acting have a lot in common: your job is to inhabit a character who may be completely different from yourself, and somehow make their speech and actions believable. I don’t consider that “writing what you don’t know” because most of us have the ability to guess (pretty accurately) what another person will say or do under certain circumstances, through a combination of personal experience, empathy, and imagination. The better we know — or have defined — that person’s character and history, the more accurate our guess will be. Take your example of the woman who rides her motorcycle into the ocean. We all understand jealousy, and rage, and fear, and how desperation can drive us to desperate acts. In the words of a Roman playwright: I am a Man; nothing human is alien to me.

          Erik

  5. My novel,The Keeper of the Crystal Spring (co-written with my sister), is set in 1087, post-Norman Conquest England. We had a general idea for the story, but it was a welcome excuse to travel to England and do the research–visit the open air museums, see the countryside, talk to the abbey historian in Shaftesbury, etc.. We acquired knowledge that not only lent authenticity to the story, but ended up weaving itself into the story threads in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. The whole premise of the book was based on a true local legend with ancient roots known primarily to locals, and which I learned from approaching a retired school teacher who I met on the street while passing through town. So…yeah, Belgrade, why not? I love any excuse to travel, but you don’t have to go on location to write about a setting that is new to you, as long as you do your homework, and homework was never so much fun. Great post, Erik.

    1. On behalf of Erik:

      Wow — it’s great that you were able to turn field research into what sounds like a marvelous vacation, and to glean some unexpected benefits from the trip! Most of my own research, sadly, has been of the armchair variety, although occasionally I do get out into the world. I’m lucky to have a lady who is willing to stand in a freezing cold Pennsylvania train yard in December while I quiz the docent about the workings of a American steam engine. I suppose that’s one thing I truly love about writing: it forces me to broaden my horizons.

      Erik

      1. Hi Erik. Must be love, and I’m sure she feels like a lucky lady to have such a creative guy. People pay money to do mystery tours, but to me, research is an exciting self-directed treasure hunt. My family has followed me to some very strange places. Some we sought out specifically for research purposes, but my kids and I have been spontaneously inspired to piece together outlines for future works while walking through the streets of Pompeii, or while walking in the Hanseatic Old Town of Bergen, Norway. But it doesn’t have to be a faraway place–the next novel is set in the funky Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, just twenty minutes away, and I can hardly wait to explore it for local color that will bring that book alive. So glad to have ‘met’ you. I wish great success.

  6. It’s simply common sense that one is going to write more evocatively of subjects, emotions, locales that one is intimately familiar with; on the other hand a highly romanticized, completely fictitious representation of a time and an era in history (say, Paris in the interwar years as evoked in Woody Allen’s terrific, award-winning screenplay for ‘Midnight in Paris’) has its place in creative writing but even then Mr. Allen wrote characters that he understood; a good writer is always drawing on his or her life experiences, whether conscious of the effort or not.

    1. On behalf of Erik:

      Common sense, certainly. But if the impulse strikes you to set a story out beyond the borders of your comfort zone, do you pursue it? For new writers, “write what you know” is often good medicine to administer — but the poison’s in the dose. I hate the thought of someone shying away from a story that they secretly burn to tell. Perhaps it’s the ambiguous wording of that axiom. I’d say, “write whatever you want, but know your subject cold by the time you’re done”. In the Age of the Internet, of e-books and [reasonably accurate] online encyclopedias, it’s really up to the writer to decide how big their world is.

      Erik

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