Monday, February 4, 2013

Write what you (don't) know

Even many who do not write fiction are familiar with the oft-given advice "Write what you know".  To which I reply 

Oh sure... if you're writing a textbook, or a patent application, or an appellate brief, or even a letter to the editor... then this advice makes sense, although it might be better expressed as 'make sure you know what you're talking about before you start distributing your words to others'.

But think about it.  Fiction, is supposed to entertain, amuse, or evoke some sort of emotion.  There should be some level of excitement, or edginess to it.  If the author is bored, how can the reader possibly be excited?  Yes, I acknowledge that if you're truly passionate about something, you can excite the reader, but I don't think many writers of fiction are passionate about their storyline.  So I'm just not sure that 'writing what you know', is truly the answer.

For your consideration, I would suggest that perhaps the advice should be... 'Write what you don't know'. After all if you don't know, you have to either figure it out (which gets the creative juices flowing) or find it out (which gets the research juices flowing).  In either event, the condition of flowing juices is more likely to result in something that is worthy of reading.

I don't currently have any fiction published - and I'm quite certain that the non-fiction that I have published would bore the pants off of nearly all of you (and while that might be entertaining or amusing, it's not my goal).  But I think there's a lot of merit to the notion of write what you don't know.  My first piece of fiction, I decided to write about what I knew... Because that's what 'everybody' said.  I had almost no advance notice, and I thought,  'I know...  I'll write a story where everything revolves around spices', because I use a lot of spices.  But it didn't take very long before I was too bored to write...  Which did not bode well for any potential readers.  So I started researching little known facts about everyday spices, and tweaked the story to include some of those facts, and NOW I had a story! And while it's not a very good story, it's better than what it was, and has the potential to be something better.  My next story was about a world where tattoos played a major role...  I have no tattoos, my husband has no tattoos...  I knew nothing about tattoos.  So I researched tattoos...  Their history, the legal issues, the development of inks, and I talked to some people with tattoos.  Voila!  By virtue of my research, I found myself excited about tattoos... Not excited enough to get one, mind you, but excited enough to write a story that wasn't boring.
Since then, for various projects, I've researched lightning, blood types, magnets, quantum physics, nursery rhymes, and oil paints.  Not enough to become an expert, of course, but enough to get excited.

Hmm, you might well be thinking 'maybe this is Laurie's theory, but she's far from an expert'... And you're right of course.  But Stephen King reported that he didn't write his best seller 11/22/63 until over 30 years after he initially had the idea, because he needed to set aside time for the large volume of research that he felt was required.    Tolkien spent decades developing the Elvish language used in The Hobbit, and Dan Brown has stated that - due to the intensive research required for his books, he can often spend two years, working on one novel.  And if you do a google search for author-fiction-research, or writer-fiction-research, you come up with pages and pages and pages of results...  at a quick glance, they include topics like how to research, what makes research effective, and why you should research..  but I didn't see anything that said 'don't bother to spend time researching, just write what you know.'

As I sat there looking at the google results and trying to figure out why people keep saying 'write what you know', I decided to google "Write what you know".

Apparently, I'm not the first to question this advice.  There seem to be a lot of people who are going through a lot of gyrations to explain that this actually means make sure you know about your topic before you actually start writing, as well as those who say that this advice is meant to refer to what you know about life and nature and humanity, and how people interact and respond, and use that in your stories.  And still other people say the advice means exactly what it says, and point to Grisham, a lawyer, who writes courtroom dramas, and Fleming, a former spy, who wrote the James Bond books.

So that means that 'Write what you know' either means what it says, doesn't mean what it says, or kind of means what it says.   Well that's hardly helpful.

BUT WAIT!!      AHA!    EUREKA!!       JACKPOT!!!

Here we go, I've found the explanation for all of this.  G. K. Chesterton (creator of the short stories about Father Brown, the priest-detective,  and author of The Man Who was Thursday, among other things), said

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.

Yes, I like that.  So -- you can do what you want, I'm going to have another cup of tea.


  1. LOL, you always say just the right thing.

  2. Well said.

    Yep, every writer has to come to grips with the "advice." I've seen the variation "write what you want to know," which is right there with your "write what you don't know."

    Well done, Laurie!