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Writing what you Know

Banes at 12:00AM, Nov. 30, 2017
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this pic has nothing to do with the subject; i've just been waiting for a chance to use it

Writing what you know is one of those old canards that show up in writing advice, thought it's not up there with things like “show, don't tell” and “this is supposed to be a literary essay - do not doodle in the margins”.

Or is that last one just me?

My cousin was once fined for “doodling in the margins”. ‘Nother story.

“Writing what you know” used to sound to me like a requirement for writing stories that were AUTHENTIC. Makes sense i guess - but how could I write only what I know and still tell stories about pirates, space captains, dragons or video store clerks? Well, that last one I could do.

So is that just nonsensical advice to be discarded in favor of using our imagination and making up what we want?

It’s probably in the area of emotions that this advice has its place - a story or series is not REALLY just about dragons or pirates or clerks. The feelings the characters have and challenges and interactions they have with each other and the world at large on an EMOTIONAL level is where we bring to bear our own experiences and ‘what we know’.

We're not old timey pirates (well, some of us are), but we can bring our own experiences with ambition, loneliness, feeling loss, feeling victory, feeling companionship or competitiveness or love or hate or fear…that's the stuff we can tap into.

In the way that great actors inhabit the characters they play and “become them” emotionally and psychologically to give an authentic portrayal is the type of thing we're talking about.

Of course, there's a matter of research and expanding our knowledge of how OTHER people might react differently than we do is part of it, too. But I think it's the emotional inhabiting of our stories that the “write what you know” advice is getting at.

What do you think ‘write what you know’ means? And do you?

comment

anonymous?

El Cid at 8:53PM, Nov. 30, 2017

It definitely helps to have familiarity with your subject matter when you do traditional writing. In high school, I had an idea for what I guess was going to be a novella about a reality TV show where the contestants are literally killed off one by one -- sort of a demented take on Survivor. But I quickly realized just how little I actually knew about broadcasting, and the equipment involved, and all of that nuts and boltsy stuff. It came off reading like exactly what it was: a school kid's idea of what the broadcasting biz must be like. You can fake it with a comic -- just copy from good reference photos and you're golden -- but with "real" writing, you better know what you're talking about, or it'll show.

usedbooks at 2:51PM, Nov. 30, 2017

@KimLuster: Same reason I never write a male lead. Supporting cast is easy to be more inclusive, especially if the demographics are insignificant compared to other character traits or to their role. I have a supporting character who is a computer geek genius and on the autism spectrum (doesn't really interact with people) and he's black. It doesn't really impact his character or role (but I love doing the pencil shading and design). Otherwise, it helps to be well acquainted with people of many demographics.

usedbooks at 2:45PM, Nov. 30, 2017

@bravo: A few women who served as men published embellished memoirs not to excuse themselves so much as wanting to sell books to make up for being denied pensions. Then again, spiced-up memoirs didn't exactly end (or begin) in the 19th century. Imo, biographies are more truthful than autobiographies. (But yeah, to some people, the embellishments were reality to them, demonizing the opposing armies/generals.)

KimLuster at 1:13PM, Nov. 30, 2017

A few characters is one thing (I had an african american colonel play a major part in the Godstrain, no prob...), but when it comes to a main character, where we'd be peering deeply into her mind, I just saw quite a few pitfalls and I chickened out. Not saying it can't be done, but we each just have to decide if it's worth the effort, and based on all the backlash I've seen with how various ethnicities are portrayed, I concluded it wasn't (for me, anyway...). I wanted to, but was afraid to, what does that say...? Anyway, a story set in a fantasy or future sci-fi world (far removed from our current culture) you maybe have a bit more leeway, but even then it can happen. I was reading about the Ravenloft world (a setting for DnD, with a dracula like character...) and there's this group called the Vistani, and there's a lot of flack saying they're copied from the Romani (gypsies, and I agree, they very much seem to be...) and are therefore racist. *shrug*

bravo1102 at 12:55PM, Nov. 30, 2017

@usedbooks: an exception to the embellished memoirs of the ACW are the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Simple, straight forward and honest. A lot of others were out to excuse their own mistakes and blame others for everything that went wrong. Some had battles in print that went on for decades.

AmeliaP at 11:52AM, Nov. 30, 2017

@bravo1102: Same here!

bravo1102 at 7:46AM, Nov. 30, 2017

The few black characters I've done have been based on people I've met as well as a lot of research. Even put some of their words into the character's mouth. Observation.

Tantz_Aerine at 7:44AM, Nov. 30, 2017

To me it means to apply your experience and common sense, based on your own real life experiences. One way or another, in a smaller or larger scale, we have all gone through situations analogous or similar to what the story we're telling needs to portray. Applying the emotions, mindset and reactions with the proper intensity based on one's own experience will give the story the authenticity the rule alludes to. Great article!

Ozoneocean at 6:55AM, Nov. 30, 2017

Hahaha Kim XD That reminds me of bottomless waitress. Jane's a black lady. I think Banes should at least have a gender reassignment to learn how to write the characters with more authenticity.

KimLuster at 6:42AM, Nov. 30, 2017

(... cont from below) I ultimately decided it'd just be best to write what I know, that being a white woman. Kinda sad in a way, but, just being honest, I didn't want my story sidelined by these stupid PC tangents.

KimLuster at 6:40AM, Nov. 30, 2017

Excellent article, again! I've noticed that a version of this comes to the head in our modern uber-PC culture, specifically when it comes to ethnic diversity in your cast. An argument could be made that a white male writer is 'writing what he knows' when most of his cast is, well, white males. Indeed, sometimes it seems clumsy and offensive should he try to include other ethnicities. If he doesn't do them 'RIGHT' (based on the what the deciders of 'right' say is right), he can get accused of stereotyping (see the movie Moana), but if he leaves them out, he's can be accused of... well, leaving them out! I've ran in to this wall. When I first started the Godstrain, I seriously considered making Kimber Lee a black woman (does it irk already that I didn't use African-American?), but I kept thinking of all the ways I might mess it up: getting black culture wrong, or, trying to create what I consider black culture and get accused of pigeonholing and stereotyping (cont...)

usedbooks at 6:12AM, Nov. 30, 2017

On the other hand, original source letters from the American Civil War are fantastic. Firsthand account memoirs from the ACW, however, are highly embellished. Many of the writers freely admitted to that fact. The goal was to sell books. (So write what you know for good fiction. Make stuff up for good nonfiction.

bravo1102 at 5:55AM, Nov. 30, 2017

To be a good writer you need to a keen observer of the human condition. You can rely on the experience of others without having done it yourself.

Ozoneocean at 5:53AM, Nov. 30, 2017

Further to what I was saying: it's much better to have accounts of the old west from the imaginative people who wrote it than someone like Wild Bill or Doc Holiday. This reminds me of an autobiography of a hussar I read, Norbert Landsnect. This man experienced some of the most interesting battles on the Napoleonic wars, from Germany, to Jamaica, to Uruguay, to Waterloo... And yet most of the text is about how bad the food was, how pretty the daughters of the farmers were, how silly King George was, and how good a feather looked in his hat... And a lot of stuff about him trying to get better jobs in the army. Much like soldiers today really. Leave the exciting stories about battles and war to the exceptional few or the non-soldiers.

usedbooks at 5:48AM, Nov. 30, 2017

Also, I had science professors compliment me on my exam margin doodles (some even encouraged them).

usedbooks at 5:46AM, Nov. 30, 2017

Also, "Write what you know" doesn't necessarily mean "Don't write what you don't know." You can write both -- technically. (Just playing devil's advocate.)

usedbooks at 5:45AM, Nov. 30, 2017

As a more experienced writer, I prefer the "Know what you write" approach. I have maps and backstories and bios. I know my characters and setting inside and out. If I didn't know a lot about the stories I wrote, they would be shallow or unbelievable. In any case, it is not just writing about personal experiences. I've never been in a relationship, but I don't think that means all my characters have to be celibate. It does mean I need to practice a level of research and empathy to create realistic experiences and lifestyles unlike my own.

usedbooks at 5:44AM, Nov. 30, 2017

On one hand, I think it's basic advice for beginning writers. If you can't think of what to write, write about things you are familiar with, your interests, your passions. I think it can also mean "write what you enjoy." Otherwise, you will lose interest, and it will be a chore.

bravo1102 at 5:13AM, Nov. 30, 2017

And feel free to doodle in the margins so long as it is subject related. I did several illustrated reports in my school days.

bravo1102 at 5:07AM, Nov. 30, 2017

Good point KAM, Sometimes having experienced something can color a narrative in ways that can spoil an otherwise good story or lend a pathos that can make it come alive.

KAM at 4:43AM, Nov. 30, 2017

The phrase is "Write what you KNOW" not 'Write what you've experienced'. You can know things you have never experienced. H.G. Wells was never an astronaut. Jules Verne was not a submariner. And yet, they used what they knew of those environments to create stories. Research is a good way to know stuff.

Froggtreecomics at 4:25AM, Nov. 30, 2017

I object to connecting on an emotional level. Comics, as we all know, should be about postmen running away from annoyed dogs.

bravo1102 at 3:46AM, Nov. 30, 2017

My mistake CS Forester was never in the military and neither was Bernard Cornwall among other writers of great military fiction who definitely captured the flavor of military life.

Ozoneocean at 12:47AM, Nov. 30, 2017

I agree: write feelings and stuff. Actually knowing all the things you're going to write would limit literature down to the most boring state! And ironically if only the people with the most interesting lives were allowed to write it'd be even MORE boring because those people tend to be really stupid... apart from a few exceptions (the ones who write now). You know: policemen, soldiers, sports people, criminals, adventurers... In the past pirates, knights, cowboys etc were the same: uninteresting morons, apart from the few exceptions that wrote good books.

Gunwallace at 12:44AM, Nov. 30, 2017

Writing what you know is easy if you've lived past lives. Unfortunately all my previous incarnations were blind beggars, piece-working orphans, or worse, Conservatives.


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