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Writer’s Craft #61 – Writing What You Know

February 27, 2012

Brittany Lyons
Brittany Lyons aspires to be a psychology professor, but decided to take some time off from grad school to help people learn to navigate the academic lifestyle. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she spends her time reading science fiction and walking her dog.

Writing What You Know

From development to revision and workshop analysis, every story undergoes a technical process to reach its full potential. Throughout this process, it is important that authors write what they know. This includes learned facts, as well as individual beliefs and experiences that personify the language.

“Good writing is about telling the truth,” notes Anne Lamont in Bird by Bird. Her advice: jot down several childhood memories as honestly as possible. “Don’t worry if what you’re writing is no good, because no one will see it.” These rough initial drafts are merely a device for establishing tone, voice and honesty.

I once used this tactic when prompted to write from the perspective of the opposite sex. I recorded a few childhood experiences, noting how gender (in my case, male) played a role in memory retention. I tried to imagine how a young female might react to similar events. This exercise established a solid female voice for my story. While your draft is likely to transform a lot during the writing and editing process it is helpful to have a decent draft to work from. Luckily a resource for some of the best online Ph.D. programs provides a number of excellent tips for the drafting process, which are useful for those who are writing a novel or a Ph.D. thesis.

To achieve a truthful tone, the Purdue Online Writing Lab suggests addressing an audience. “Pretend that you are being interviewed by someone — or by several people, if possible.” This allows the author to sharpen their points and convey the subject in a truthful, thoughtful way.

I was assigned an editorial that argued for states’ rights, a notion I only partially favor. The “mock audience” method allowed me to focus on viewpoints I agreed with and disregard those I opposed. By channeling energy into writing that matched my personal beliefs, the editorial I produced was honest and effective.

Columnist Hilary Mandel recommends a detailed environment to define characters. “If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character” she writes, “it becomes, in effect, part of character definition.” In addition to research, the writer should draw on individual surroundings and experiences. A helpful exercise: record a few sensory observations, followed by similar passages from the characters’ perspectives.

I once utilized this tactic when asked to produce a story set in a randomly assigned country—in my case, Greece. I researched Greek history, culture and cuisine, and wrote phrases to describe pictorials. Using the same voice, I recorded some of my own memories. What I knew became how my characters saw.

Establishing truthfulness is key for producing a successful draft. Authors benefit by starting every project with exercises that enable self-discovery. When writers use themselves as a starting point, every piece becomes a signature product.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 7:25 am

    What a thought-provoking post. Write what you know is usually taken to mean: write about your own experiences and the specific knowledge your life has given you. Which would make fantasy and science fiction quite hard to do! But in fact, your way of looking at it says, put yourself into a character so you can write them from a position of knowledge, or even, go and do your research, then write what you’ve found out. Both of which seem to be far more open, far more creative and far less limiting, then just writing about what you know right now. My theory tends to be, if I want to write about something I have no personal experience of, I go and find out about it! This can lead me down some very creative and unlikely roads, and is certainly more fun than just writing about what I can see from my study window!

  2. February 27, 2012 10:55 am

    I agree that good writing is about telling the truth, but I’m not sure that I mean the same thing. I would say that good writing is about telling the truth, while commercial writing is about repeating the lies people like to hear. Most commercial fiction reinforces at least one of the Big Lies, which are narrative tropes that make people feel good about themselves, their culture, or the world. For example:

    – No problem is so big that it cannot be solved by one lone protagonist.
    – People can be categorized into good people and bad people, and bad people are not like you.
    – Violence and conflict are always someone’s fault, never an unavoidable result of contention for limited resources or the best stable outcome for game-theoretic reasons.
    – Problems are caused by moral failings, not by real-world constraints. So they can be solved by identifying and getting rid of the bad people, or by putting sufficiently-virtuous people in charge. Not by designing a new system that works even with bad people.
    – Character traits can be categorized into virtues and flaws, and character growth means identifying and eliminating the flaws.
    – Moral behavior is instinctive and context-free, not cognitive and complex, so everyone is equally capable of it.
    – Determination and pluck are more important than understanding or practice or planning ahead.
    – Bad guys try to change the world. Good guys try to stop them. (Unless the good guys are trying to restore the world to the way it was before.)
    – Death is not so bad; in fact, it’s probably good for us in the long run.
    – Individualism is morally superior to collectivism.
    – The universe is inherently fair and nice.
    – False and destructive beliefs about love too numerous to list.

    Good writing must work on many levels: grammar, style, character, plot, tension, dramatic structure, consistent logical closure over the story world, theme, and truthfulness. Commercial fiction ignores the last point, because unlike the others, representing the world truthfully doesn’t help sell books.

    I’ve been looking at fan-fiction recently. Most fan-fiction is considerably worse than professionally-written fiction as far as grammar through theme. But professional fiction is no better than fan-fiction when it comes to telling the truth about the world, and about people.

    • February 27, 2012 1:03 pm

      P.S.- The two most-popular serious fan-fictions that I’m aware of, /Fallout: Equestria/ and /Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality/, are both much better than most professional fiction in this regard. HP:MOR is entirely about breaking down the big lies about social structures and teaching people to notice and escape their social conditioning. FOE is largely about attacking big lies about people (the underlying conception is, “So you think horrible societies are built by horrible people? I’m going to show you how, despite the best of intentions, the sweet, innocent ponies from My Little Pony could end up raping and murdering each other in an apocalyptic wasteland of their own making.”)

  3. February 27, 2012 1:27 pm

    @ Phil: I think you’re right. But I look at it differently: popular fiction (or at least the escapist portion of it) is about what would be nice if it were true, and it gets to be true for the length of the book.

    @ Lynda: For geographical research, I love travelers’ blogs. They give a sense of the details an outsider would notice.

  4. March 3, 2012 10:17 pm

    Thank you.

    Whenever I hear people at writing conferences or other blogs say “write what you know” they often add “unless you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, of course.” That always irritates me. These genres are not exceptions. You have to put something real into any made-up world you create.

    • March 4, 2012 11:36 am

      Right on James! I realized, at some point, that the Okal Rel Universe was what I knew. I’d been creating it since I was a kid as an arena for thinking through things that troubled me. So, as a adult, I had a setting and characters and all sorts of tools in hand to ask the questions I wanted to explore. Why would I put it aside and work with something else? But I was constantly getting advice to start over, go with a trend, do the ‘next’ thing, etc. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to be taken too literally.

  5. Kolya Ivankov permalink
    March 7, 2012 2:31 pm

    Well, Your post recalls me about what Le Guin has written in her blog once:

    «…As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”»

    Here is a link to the full text: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/AboutWriting13-OnRulesofWriting.html

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