Wednesday, 27 April 2011

W is for Write What You Know?

I think this proclamation is often misunderstood, certainly in this form. A better way to put it, I feel, is ‘Use what you know.’

Obviously if you know a lot about the subject that you're writing about then you will bring an authenticity to it. Your words will carry authority. The confidence you feel in the words you put on the page will transfer to the reader. One of the biggest issues for aspiring writers is feeling their story is going to be doubted. People will say, ‘You said she was going to a cool party. I wouldn’t want to go to a party like the one you’ve described. How can you think this is cool?’ 

This kind of insecurity is at the root of a lot of the vague, detail withholding, coy writing at the start of stories. If I don’t say exactly what I mean, no one can judge me. I may not have proved I’m right, but nobody can prove I’m wrong.

One of the ways to get round this 'retreat into the comfortably obscure' is to write what you know to be true. I went to a party like this, it was damn cool, and I don’t care who thinks otherwise. That confidence from experience can get you over that initial hurdle of self-doubt.

Later, when you’ve experienced the range of responses a piece of work can get, you will be more than able to bluff and fake your way through it. Not to fake the writing, but to fake the confidence needed to answer critics or justify your choices. 

But what do you know? Especially when you’re young and your life experience is school, family and a part-time job? In that position the ‘write what you know’ edict can feel like a kind of put down. You haven't done anything, you don't know anything, your writing isn’t worth anything. But every experience is a rich vein that produces different gems for different people.

Let's say the only job you ever had was working as a waiter in a restaurant. You now have knowledge of what it's like a behind-the-scenes of the service industry. 'Write what you know' would suggest that you can now write about restaurants. Of course, you may not be that interested in writing restaurant fiction, but you could use a cafe as the background for a story. Or you could have a minor character in a story work as a waiter. All of these different approaches would benefit from your firsthand knowledge. Any writer could probably come up with a similarly believable representation, but your story would have a greater feel of authenticity.

It should be noted that what you bring needs to be more than the universally accepted view of restaurants that people get from books and films and TV. You need to have an understanding of what it's really like and show aspects people won’t be aware of, and as long as you are an observational person that shouldn’t be too difficult.

So, write what you know, you know restaurants, you should write about restaurants, right? Sure, but you know a lot more than just how a restaurant works from working at a restaurant. You know how people work, how different dynamics operate, has status affects things, how personalities clash or gel. There's a whole gamut of behaviour you can observe, and then apply to almost any other situation whether  onboard a starship or in the land of the faeries. Use what you know.

There are some things which are so specific that even though you can improvise, it will be fairly obvious that that's what you're doing. War, prison, politics — if you try to bluff your way through these sorts of things, even if you set it in another reality, people will smell something fishy.

Sometimes a great imagination and large amounts of conviction can sell something that is completely bogus. Other times research can provide the voice of authority that makes it believable. But ultimately reading something by somebody who isn't a very good writer but who has, for example, actually been to prison will by and large blow anything else out of the water. That’s the power of knowing things.

That doesn't mean you have to go to prison to write about prison, any more than you need to be a pregnant woman to write about giving birth, but you will be at a great disadvantage and need to find an approach that is convincing both for yourself and for your readers. The further you get from your personal experience, not in mechanical, physical terms, but in emotional terms, the harder it is to be convincing.

Just because you create a whole world from the ground up with no relation to the real world, not even populated by humans, people will still judge its authenticity. If the inhabitants love and hate and follow leaders and betray friends, those are all things we recognise. And if you base those relationships on other stories and generalities it won’t ring true. You have to call on the feelings you have experienced yourself. To give the story a unique voice and perspective you have to use something from your personal experience. You have to write what you know.


Lucy V Morgan said...

I agree about using what you know. I also think that regardless of the setting, you should write what you FEEL. Inner conflict is a hell of a lot harder to "fake" as a writer than outer conflict.

Josh Hoyt said...

This is great "use what you know" If we all just wrote about what we know there wouldn't be much fantasy. I also like your thoughts on the understanding the interactions between people. We all have had experience in this to some degree. Great post as usual.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Once we get out into the world and start dealing with people, we learn so much that can be applied to just about any situation.

Tiyana, aka "Yoyo" said...

"Use what you know" makes so much more sense than "write what you know." If you can write from an authentic place, using your empathetic skills to convey an emotional experience, and combine that with knowledge you actually grasp and an imagination, then your chances at ringing true across the page are that much greater.

Thanks for the insight, Moody!

Brent Wescott said...

I have a thought to share here; I hope the pertinence comes across.

Orson Scott Card came to speak to a creative writing class I was in and he spoke for a while about creating vivid, believable, emotionally complete characters. Not once did he mention writing science fiction or fantasy. So I asked him something about how he creates his characters living in other worlds. He replied that he does the same thing he had just outlined for us. It's the emotion and humanity that makes the story engaging, not the setting or genre.

This is what I thought of as I read your last paragraph about writing what we recognize as real, no matter what kind of story it is.

Thanks as usual for the thoughts, Moody.

Michael Offutt said...

Great post moody. Also Brent, thanks for sharing the tips regarding Orson Scott Card and writing.

Beverly Diehl said...

I would say a piece of this is why it's hard for very young writers to write believably from the POV of older persons. An older person can remember being a teen, a new parent, numerous bad (or good) relationships, a person in his/her teens or twenties has only so much emotional experience to draw on, S/he can TRY to imagine what it's like to be a grandparent, but maybe that's not the best use of his/her skills.

Paul Joseph said...

As a former teacher, I can easily tell when a book dealing with school/educational issues is written by an author with no concept of how it works. Obviously, you do not have to be a teacher to write, but if you want to write about these issues, you must learn them correctly. Researching give you an idea, but I always fell it's best to observe directly. There are too many misconceptions floating around.

I think when writers have the opportunity to experience a situation directly, go through it. I always try and live life through my character - eating what they eat, watching what they watch, etc. When we see the world through their eyes and not our own, I think the story becomes more convincing.

Halli Gomez said...

This is a great explanation of use/write what you know. I like the example of using places you know as a background. That helps establish a concrete setting.
One rule I try to stick by is displaying confidence in whatever I do. People definitely take you seriously if you act and sound like you know what you are saying. I never thought about translating that to writing, but I can now see how important that is.
Thanks again for the tips!
Halli (aka: Karate Witch)

Michael Di Gesu said...

SO true. Writing what you know reinforces you prose. Granted one can become pretty well rounded in a subject if they do their research, but knowing is the icing on the cake.

Laura Josephsen said...

I like that you pointed out our experiences aren't limited to immediate surroundings (like you said, if you work at a restaurant, you learn a lot about interactions/people/etc.) because it's so true. And it can be scary sometimes, as a writer, to use what we know emotionally and put that forth onto the pages, but a character without emotional authenticity is a flat character.

Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post!

Gail M Baugniet said...

Writing what you know can also mean researching a topic and then adding your unique personal touch to the information to authenticate your work.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I think you've hit the essence. It's not technical knowledge you need to pass on, but if you know humour, use it, if you've known grief or sadness, you can relate that well in your story. As for the technical, I feel you learn what you write, so you will know :)
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Lydia K said...

Took me a while to understand this. I always thought I wasn't tortured enough to be a good writer. It's not about that.

Anonymous said...

I write what I know but then again I spend an incredible amount of time in research. So this has helped broaden my horizons much and write about things I originally had limited knowledge.

Bob Scotney said...

It's so annoying when you've used what you know to write about an event in a different way than has been done before after a lot of research and then some so-and-so pinches it word for word.
The danger is with research that you can finish up learning more and more about less and less until you nothing about anything.

Arlee Bird said...

"Write what you know" has been so often misunderstood. I think you have clarified it well here.

Tossing It Out

nutschell said...

well said. I think it also means write what you love to read. :)

Deana said...

Completely agree. I have caught myself many times second guessing my writing and it does show when that happens.

Also, taking a piece of my life as dull as it may be at times and weaving it into a fantasy novel, for instance, adds more depth and reality to the piece in my opinion.

Hart Johnson said...

I love that 'use' instead of write. As a psychologist I use psych for characters and relationships and motivation, but it is never MENTIONED, so I think you're right.

I think young writers excel at fantasy (because their imaginations haven't been tromped by reality) and romance (because they haven't learned the futility or danger)... some genres need life though.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the wonderful comments. Always great to see. Especially the different perspectives. Cheers.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is a brilliant post. Most people forget the part about writing what you know Emotionally. A lot of the other stuff can be research (though I still doubt my brother knows what it feels like to give birth just because he was in the same room as his wife when SHE gave birth), but being able to tap into your emotional experiences is key to writing.

Ps. Side note on your comment about my post today. In truth, I order (online) books based on their great sounding blurbs and because I like the author (or have heard great things about her). Rarely have I seen the first page before I order the book. So what you said I also agree with. ;)

Melissa Dean said...

Again great minds think alike, Moody! Great post!

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