Tag Archives: write what you know

“Write what you know” and what it means to me right now

“Write what you know” is a popular piece of advice given to writers, and over the course of the many years I have been writing, I’ve interpreted it in a few different ways.

As a novice, I thought it meant sticking to what you’re already knowledgable about.

After that, I thought it meant putting in the work to do the research and become knowledgable about the topics you want to write about.

In forum posts I made in the last couple of years I’ve argued that it’s about putting personal feelings and experiences into what you write – drawing upon your emotional responses to events to inform the way you write characters.

These days I think it’s a combination of all three. Which is predominant depends on the needs of the scene in question.

Recently I’ve been working on “Fiarra Beginnings”, the latest version of my volcanic island survival fantasy story. It has undergone a lot of changes and seen a fair few restarts over the years, but this time I’ve been taking a different approach by taking it chapter by chapter: I start with notes about what I want from the chapter, look into the characters involved in the chapter and what their motivations are, find out what I need to know about to write convincingly on the topics covered in the chapter, develop a chapter outline, and then write the chapter. Then I move on to the next.

This approach has highlighted to me these different definitions of “write what you know”.

I had decided fairly early in the process that Fiarra’s background needed to be in a profession that becomes useless after the eruption of the volcano and evacuation of everyone who can get on board the ships in the harbour at the time. The setting in terms of technology is roughly equivalent to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, so I made her a glass-maker. In the aftermath of the eruption, there’s no call for glass when people are simply struggling to survive, and in any case it would be thought to be a pointless extravagance when there’s always the risk of another eruption that would rain down more rocks to smash windows, or shake the earth to knock bottles off shelves. So to get that right, I needed to do a lot of research into early glass-making, including raw materials and processes. I have to know what I’m writing about after all.

For the secondary protagonist, Macky, I had a similar requirement: his background needed to be in the service of the Governor, but not in direct contact. I needed him to feel betrayed by the Governor specifically as part of his motivation. Initially I felt a gardener position would be fine, but I wanted a bit more prestige and a bit more of a sense of dedication and hard work, so I made him a beekeeper. I have been researching the history of beekeeping this summer, in particular in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and my Dad keeps bees, so I have plenty of knowledge on this already, from the kinds of hives that might have been used, to the ways to prevent and treat stings. In this I am writing on a topic that I know about in depth already.

And as for drawing upon personal experience, that’s always an easy one once you have enough of it. I have drawn upon my personal experiences in work, after experiencing loss, after major life changes, in personal relationships with the people around me, and more.

Still, there’s always more to learn, more to know – and more to write about.

Reading about Writing: Re-evaluation

Part 1: Re-evaluating my July Challenge

Things have got way busy and my schedule is shot to shit, so I’m doubling the time scales and including August too. It is now my Summer Writing Challenge.

Part 2: “Write what you know”

I was reading some more of On Writing on the train on the way to Liverpool this morning and I came across this section of what Stephen King has to say. This is something I’ve definitely come across before, and beyond recognising that this doesn’t mean I should be writing exclusively about Shropshire-based people struggling with first jobs, or archaeology students in Leicester, or annoying little brothers who leave their older sisters’ cars stinking of cigarette smoke after getting free lifts everywhere (it’s okay, he doesn’t read this blog), I’ve never really thought about this concept in much depth.

I mean, I write fantasy. Of course I’m not always writing what I know. I’ve never slain a dragon or cast a spell or led an army against a city. But I am a person with feelings and thoughts and I know other people with feelings and thoughts, and I did a degree in ancient history and archaeology so I do at least know a little about different types of societies and a different type of warfare and courtyard houses and lost-wax bronze casting and letter forms being seen as magical in an early literate society, and so quite a lot of what I write is stuff I know, or based on what I know, built up with imagination.

That’s about as much as I’d thought about it before today. And I guess Stephen King isn’t really saying anything I didn’t know on this count, but he does say it well. He points out that a plumber might not know much about flying to other planets on a space ship, and that’s where imagination might come in, but a plumber does know a lot about plumbing – and could therefore tell a good story about a plumber flying to other planets on a space ship. The point isn’t that you write what you know, but that you bring your knowledge to what you write. King phrases it as telling the truth in something made of lies, but I think I prefer to think of it that way.

I spent ten minutes or so on the train jotting down bullet points about what I know. Sure, the first few bullet points were things like “being a student” and miscellanea about ancient Greece and my job and Shropshire, and yes, I can bring those things to what I write. I did so for Ailith’s Gift – a story set in an early medieval version of Wroxeter, pretty much as it probably was at that time, in the shadow of a dragon (that bit was imagination) who lived on top of the Wrekin which has crags on the southern end of the summit which really do look like they might be home to a dragon.

But knowledge of early medieval Shropshire or how a phalanx marches or how an archaic Greek courtyard house functions aren’t really the kind of knowledge that’s most important. Because the next few bullet points are a lot more personal. They’re not things you can read a Wikipedia page about and get right. They’re complicated things involving feelings and experiences. One of my bullet points recognises a flaw in my father, a contradiction in his character, which really hurt when I first discovered it because, at the age of 21, I finally twigged that my Dad is a flawed person like everyone else and there are some things he can’t face and can’t deal with. And I can put that into a story. Another bullet point examines one of my own flaws, something that’s come into stark contrast this year when I compare what I’m doing and what decisions I have made to what my brother and my sister are doing and what decisions they’ve made. And that’s something I can put into a story. Into a character. One of my bullet points deals with a hardship I’ve been living through for the last four years and how I have always felt a step behind it, never really knowing how to deal with it, but somehow managing to cope or at least fix things when they go badly wrong. And that’s something else I can put into a story.

That’s really what it’s about when we say “write what you know” – or “bring your knowledge to what you write”. I can look at what I know about those I know best – myself, my family, my friends – and put parts of their struggles and contradictions and fears and approaches into characters.

With this in mind, I made another note in my notebook. Thinking back to the Penal Colony story I was working on in May, I came to realise that I stopped in part because I got bored on my protagonist, Fiarra. She’s not real enough. The personality I gave her was superficial, only skin deep. She was just another protagonist, with drive to change things and a barely debilitating level of anxiety that never got in the way long enough to derail what I was planning. It was, I now realise, exactly the kind of flaw that the kinds of people who make Mary Sue tests warn against, only I didn’t realise it because I didn’t make her blonde and liked by everyone and let her win in everything.

And maybe putting a little more of me into her won’t exactly make her a fantastic character, but I think it will make her a bit more believable, or at least make her a bit better to practice with while I learn to write better characters. So that’s what I’m going to do: put something of my flaws into her, give her something that’s holding her back when she could be out there being the hero, and see where that takes the story instead.

Part 3: “Everyone is a protagonist in their own story”

This was what I read on the train home from Liverpool this evening. And as with “write what you know”, this isn’t a new concept to me. But again, King manages to phrase it in such a way that the full force of the meaning of that phrase is realised. And here’s where another re-evaluation of the Penal Colony story is in order, because I wasn’t treating any character but Fiarra as a protagonist in their own stories. They only did things when I needed something from them to move things forward for Fiarra. I was treating them like sets in a play, to be wheeled on at the appropriate scene in order to give Fiarra’s stuff context. Sure, I gave some of them motivations and backstories and even modes of speech and likes and dispositions. All paintwork on the plyboard. Pretty paintwork, sure, but still just set dressing.

Before I start writing the Penal Colony story again, then, I need to step back and work through my secondary characters. The Governor must have a plan for what she’s doing. Several plans, branching plans, back-up plans, short-term and medium plans. She’s the sort of person who has a pretty good grasp on what she wants and which steps she needs to take to get it. And as the antagonist of the story, even if she’s very much in the background for the first half of it, she needs to be a protagonist from the other side of it. Then there’s Deego, who has a story of his own running parallel and intertwining with Fiarra’s. But there’s also Laik and Prentor and Siril and Teyt and Corun, who don’t have subplots just about them, who sit there waiting in the wings to be wheeled on when Fiarra’s story demands it. And I need to do better with them too, or maybe even, for some of them, cut them out.

It’s clear to me now that I’ve got such a long way to go, not only with this story but also with writing in general. I’ve made steps today, but there’s a lot more thinking to do for Penal Colony, a lot more writing to do, and a lot more learning.

I guess it is true: the more you know, the more you realise how little you know.