“Write what you know.” What nonsense

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”

~~ Gore Vidal

I positively love that quote.  It says a lot.  It’s not terribly polite, no, but it’s truth in many regards.

“Write what you know” you see it everywhere you see writers or would be writers discussing things.  Such a strange phrase, I think.  If we write only what we know, the where do we get some of the grander adventures of gods and heroes?  Where shall we seek the dreams of far away worlds and the starships that will get us there?  How shall we dance with angels, sing with mermaids, climb Mons Olympus, and so much more?

We’re writers, even if we skip the fantastic, however shall we rub elbows with the financial elite while sipping champagne and eating caviare?  Wherever would be Julia Roberts and Richard Gere — take your pick of films, but I tend to prefer Pretty Woman for this thought.

If you’re speaking of non-fiction, then certainly write what you know.  I’m not about to try to write a four-hundred page treatise on the mating habits of the Australian Dwarf Hamster.  Why?  Because I don’t know anything about the mating habits of any hamster dwarf, Australian, or otherwise.  If I tried to write that book my ignorance would show, unless I researched it to the extent that it ceased to be anything I’m ignorant of.

In fiction however we ought to write what we think, feel, dream, fear, love, and hate.  Fiction is about holding a mirror up to reality and life.  It is symbolism, it is satire, it is commentary, it is entertainment.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing the epic tale of two stoners looking for their car after a hard night of partying; the tale of the Hollywood streetwalker who wins the heart of a Wall Street billionaire; taking a family trip across the solar system in your very own nuclear rocket ship; sailing the high seas with Long John Silver and a map to lost treasure … these are things we don’t have to know in our minds, these are things we need to know in our hearts, our souls, in our sense of humour, in our feelings of whimsy, and in our deepest desires.

When we tell a story we must write what we don’t and can’t know.  If we didn’t, then books written by women would have naught but female characters, and vice versa for the men.  Indiana Jones would have no Nazis to fight and no exotic locals to interact with.  When we tell a story we have no choice but to dig into our imaginations and write what we believe, and what we hope that our audience will too.  We have to say “I can’t grow a beard, but I suppose if I could it must be …”

Oh, certainly, we can research some things.  We can research details of shaving.  The intricacies of the straight-blade, cut-throat razor, or the ins and outs of maintaining a handlebar moustache can be unravelled with a little time spent in a forum of moustache enthusiasts.  Still, we cannot experience it.  We can know about it, but not know it.  If you can’t have a moustache then you can only guess at how hard or easy it is to keep soup out of it and how you might drink your coffee politely.  Even the author who can grow a moustache doesn’t know these if he does not grow it and experience it.

There there are the unknowable, unresearchable.  What sort of creatures live on Europa?  What sorts of things are rude or polite on the fourth world of ε Eri?  What was Helen of Troy‘s favourite food?  What is the dance that cures the plague by calling upon Polikthara’s holy light?  Just what does sex feel like from the perspective of our opposite gender?  What is it like to be dying of consumption, or of leukaemia?  What are the smells and sounds of this street in Budapest at noon … in 1287CE?  What did sabre-toothed tiger taste like?

So many questions.  Fiction answers those questions.  We dream of hunting a sabre-toothed tiger with our flint spear through the frozen wastes of the neolithic Earth, the survival of ourselves and our whole family dependent on you coming back with that precious meat and that skeleton made of such useful tools.  We tell that dream.  Are we right?  Are we wrong?  Maybe sabre-toothed tiger tastes more like mastodon and less like chicken, but c’est la vie, without a TARDIS we’ll never know.

That is the meaning of that quote, to me.  Even in the things researchable, sometimes you just have to step into the realm of dream, of narrative causality, of poetic justice.  You have to look at the books in the library on lock picking and locksmithing and say “Rabson.  Screw it, we’ll just wax eloquently about a Rabson deadbolt.  They don’t exist, but how many of my readers know the first, second, or even twenty-fifth thing about locks?!”  When we say that we get the wondrous adventures of Mr Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar extraordinaire.

How many of us have been shot, shot at, stabbed, in a bar fight?  How many of us have been handed an exploding dental floss, a wristwatch with a laser in it, and an Aston Martin with missiles?  How many of us have been given a recommissioned diesel submarine and told to go act like a pirate trying to get past the US Nuclear Navy with a crew of lunatic misfits?  How many of us have taken a rocket to the moon?  How many of us have explored the lost, cursed tombs of the ancient Pharaohs in search of treasure?

When you write fiction trust your gut.  Feel, question, and guess. To Hell with what you know.  Forget what you know.  You know that science says the universal speed limit is 299,792,458 metres per second, but what if you feel or suspect that this isn’t true?!  Don’t tie yourself down with “facts”, ever do that.  If you want to give physics the finger, then do it — keep the laws of thermodynamics only if you like them, but don’t feel obligated to obey them.  This is your world, your story, your dream.  If we can fly when we close our eyes and sleep, then by all the watching gods, so too can we when we look at the words between the pages.

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2 thoughts on ““Write what you know.” What nonsense

  1. Really nice article, I find that research can be a catalyst for my fiction and send me off in new directions, but sometimes I get bogged in the details or it can send me of in the wrong directions – it’s hard getting the balance right! Haha, and I enjoyed your reference to ‘Down Peroscope’

    Like

    • Thanks. I tend to write it first, then look it up after to find out if I’m right, and then adjust accordingly.

      I don’t know, however, if that’s what keeps me from being bogged down in research or if it’s my inherently lazy nature and the fact that I have a bit of ADD, so get bored of the research after a few minutes.

      Like

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