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Do You Write What You Know?

This week, I decided to take a break from the posts about fencing. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that soon – I’m obsessed with swords and there are many fencing topics that I can still write about.

Maybe you’ve heard the oft-muttered writing advice to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW” or perhaps you haven’t. But either way, I’ve read several debates on this idea. The gist of it is this: if you fill your writing with settings, subjects, scenarios, or technology that you personally have experienced, then that will give your work greater authenticity. For example, if I’m a  professional chocolate weevil exterminator and I write about a character that is an exterminator, I’ll bring my personal knowledge of that trade to the story. There are details about my life that will infuse the plot and character with some sort of intangible credibility.

The opposite to this would be to “WRITE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW” which for any author of fantasy or science fiction becomes a necessity at some level. I mean, how many of us have been to another planet? How many of us have worked magic or slain a troll? At some point in our craft, we have to extrapolate and do the best we can with this sort of thing. There is a subset of this that encompasses those subjects or places with which you personally are not familiar, but perhaps thousands or millions of other people are. To me, this is the most difficult type of story to write. This is where the research becomes key. Sure, you can write what you don’t know, but if you do a terrible job of it, someone will pick up on that and that can take them out of of the story. It can ruin their reading experience and cause the story to fail at all other levels.

So writers, do YOU write what you know? It turns out that I usually don’t. Professionally, this is what I know:

Chocolate dog vomit. With wrappers.

That’s vomit.

Dog vomit.

Chocolate dog vomit.

In my day job, I make dogs vomit. I work (nights actually) as an emergency veterinarian. If dogs didn’t eat things that they shouldn’t be eating, I wouldn’t have nearly as much to do. I have to induce vomiting quite often on poor pups that ate a sock, a bottle of medication, or…chocolate.

I don’t often write about dogs, cats, or veterinarians, however. This occurred to me as I started to write a story last week that DID involve dogs, cats, and a veterinary office. Of course it also has a zombie and one of these guys in it:

This little alligator was left in a box on the doorstep of the hospital.

I don’t see alligators very often at my job. I went to school in Florida, where I saw them sunning themselves besides drainage ponds while I walked to class. But here in New Jersey?

I have noticed that there seems to be more hard science fiction written about extrapolated physics, astrophysics, and technology than there is advanced biology, genetics, or medicine. Some writers blend the hard sciences and the life sciences in their fiction, but usually one field has a greater influence in the story than the other. Is this a side effect of authors writing what they know?

What do you think? Do you write what you know? Have you tried to write what you don’t know? Have you ever found an alligator in a box on your doorstep?

Oh and hey, I’ll be at ChiCon this weekend (at least the first half of it). If you see me wandering the con, come say hello.

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Iulian
    Aug 28, 2012 @ 11:03:29

    I actually find myself trying hard to write about things I may not necessarily know very well, but I do document myself. In this way, I think that I actually extend my horizon. But I do admit that as I write, I tend to mention or tangentially approach things that I am comfortable with. I try to stay away from that because I am afraid that things that I know too well are to mundane and too much “inside the box.” But, one way or another I do find myself gravitating toward the “safe zone” of knowledge.

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  2. Pauline
    Aug 28, 2012 @ 11:28:47

    I used to sneer at “write what you know,” because why would I want to write (or read) a story about characters whose life experience is no more interesting than mine? From the time I was too young for kindergarten and drew pictures about kids going to school, I’ve always liked to use fiction to experience things outside my real life. But now I’ve read enough stories set in New York City by people who obviously don’t know New York City to have gained some appreciation of the “write what you know” maxim. Other writing without knowing that bugs me: stories that affect a down-and-out urban setting and have a stereotyped scene in a “soup kitchen” that demonstrates the person has never been inside one. Stories in which a contemporary American child whose parents have died is sent to an “orphanage.”

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  3. David Sklar
    Aug 28, 2012 @ 11:43:01

    Things I know pop up sporadically, in odd ways. I’ve been actively working to include more of the biology/medicine I learn from the day job. And to include more Jewish folklore and less Celtic (though this is difficult, since I read Brian Froud much more avidly than, say, Isaac Bashevis Singer). And I’ve been trying to steel myself to write a heart-wrenching story about a father visiting his son in the NICU.

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  4. S. A. Bolich
    Aug 28, 2012 @ 15:19:47

    You can always tell a story written by someone who has actually been exposed at close range to elements within the story. I just edited a novel centered around a foster kid, and it was very clear the authors were familiar with the foster system and how it affects the kids involved. So yeah, writing what you know can really set your story apart. But after that, research, research, research is the key, because you can’t just limit yourself to your own experiences. I love writing historical fiction/fantasy, so I immerse myself in the era. There is a ton of great fantasy out there where the authors knew a great deal about how the real world works and extrapolated it onto their fantasy world. I have even read stories in Analog written by a real-life vet wherein the character is the vet of choice for sequestered aliens. So use your background, Clare. Your fencing experience will certainly lend gritty authenticity to fight scenes. Who knows? The chocolate dog puke might lend a comic touch someday. 🙂

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  5. Delphi Psmith
    Aug 28, 2012 @ 18:54:25

    I agree about the research. Writing is a terrific motivator for doing research. I don’t think anyone should be deflected from writing a great story just because it includes a field they’re not familiar with. One of my favorite novels incorporates as a central theme a ton of detail about architecture; you’d think the author must have been an architect, but in fact she got all her knowledge simply by doing research. (Of course if you do enough research, one could argue that you DO know it, so you’re still writing what you know…but I digress).

    As a reader, I do think it’s great if the author’s knowledge adds detail and verisimilitude; but it seems too easy to fall into the trap of overusing what you know, getting too much of your knowledge into your stories. You don’t want your books/stories to be interesting only to other people who share your jargon or background, after all. (For some reason a lot of military fiction authors seem to fall into this – I don’t need to know how to disassemble an AK-47 or what the gearbox of a WWII jeep looks like, and yet they all want to tell me in humungous detail…)

    I guess for me the bottom line is that “Write what you know” is like salt: use it for seasoning, but don’t make a whole meal out of it 🙂

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  6. Delphi Psmith
    Aug 28, 2012 @ 19:22:07

    Oh, and I’ll be watching for the chocolate dog vomit in one of your SSIAWs 😉

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  7. Pauline
    Aug 29, 2012 @ 10:31:03

    How about a new rule: “Write what your friends know.” In other words, Claire, I’ll be contacting you whenever I write about animals. I bet you know almost as much about their behavior as about the contents of their stomachs. (Why are dogs such indiscriminate eaters, anyway?)

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  8. MeiLin Miranda (@MeiLinMiranda)
    Aug 29, 2012 @ 18:58:53

    I try to focus on writing what I love, not what I know. I put elements of what I know in my stories, but writing to the love means your readers are more likely to love it, too.

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  9. Clare
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 02:12:06

    Oh, what great discussion! I think that “write what your friends know” is a part of research. There are certainly different types of research. Book research is a good place to start, but hands-on skills, classes, or travel are other options. Or speaking with an expert on a topic (or a friend) can also help flesh out those aspects of a world or story with which you are not familiar.

    Perhaps the trick is to figure out when you need to do that research. I could see how a writer might make a mistake out of ignorance. If you don’t know enough about a subject to even know that you need to do research, you could make a blunder. Let’s see. Here’s an example:

    – Say that your story involves vomit (chocolate or otherwise). Who would think that you’d need to research vomit?
    – Well, certain species cannot vomit. Horses and rabbits are two. It’s not that they rarely vomit. They physically cannot do it. A horse can rupture its stomach (fatally) if the pressure becomes too great.

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    • Pauline
      Aug 30, 2012 @ 08:35:44

      I can see that I’ll need to consult you for horse sense.
      I did a lot of research on sailing terminology for _The Eye of Night_. I figured I didn’t need to know how to sail a boat, but I needed to know how someone who did sail would talk about sailing. So I contacted an old friend who I knew was into sailing & picked his brain. I also researched farm work, both reading an old 18th-century “Farmer’s Calendar” and asking questions of an internet friend who grew up on a farm. I knew I had no notion of agrarian life and even if it was an invented world, there had to be some verisimilitude about the farms my characters passed by along the way.
      One area where people often don’t realize they need to do research is in portraying someone of a different religion. I recall seeing a call for submissions for a Catholic science fiction anthology that cautioned writers to know something about Catholicism before submitting — specifically, don’t have a nun telling people to “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” And you know they pulled out that example because they’d seen some writer do it, putting an Evangelical formula into the mouth of a Catholic character because to that writer, all religious Christian types sound alike.

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  10. justinegraykin
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 06:36:50

    Several of you have touched on what I think is the key to it: Write what you want to know. Yes, if you write out of what is familiar to you, it will have authenticity. But as Pauline points out, familiarity breeds boredom. MeiLin brings in what I think is closer to the ideal. It you are passionate about a subject, you will happily devote yourself to learning every detail, and that passion will translate into your work. Writing what you know implies stagnation. Use that knowledge, of course. But your writing process will be more dynamic if you are constantly pushing yourself into new areas of interest. Boldly go where you have not gone before, but do it because you want to. Don’t push yourself into learning about sword fighting or herbal medicine or genetic mapping because you think you have to for the story you ought to be writing. Learn it because you think genetic mapping is awesome, herbal medicine is fascinating, or swords are the coolest things in the world. The inspiration for the story will follow, and it will be a far better story than the one you thought you were obliged to write.

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