This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.
The panelists discussed that ‘write what you know’ is a line often repeated by academics and writing gurus, often ones who are not fiction writers or who write fiction which does not have many readers.
The gist of the panelists’ response to the question of whether a fiction writer should or should not write what they know can be summed up with the following two points:
– Write what you know. If you don’t know about what you want to write, learn it.
– You can always know about human behaviour and your own emotions. So when your writing includes aspects of characters, situations, or places which are unfamiliar to you, you can still write a great story drawing on your detailed knowledge of behavior and emotions from your own life experience.
However, if your knowledge of an aspect of what you are writing about is so limited that you make obvious factual errors, a reader who picks up on the errors might find this annoying or a less enjoyable or intellectually stimulating experience. Some types of science fiction writing in particular have many expert readers who will pick up even on small errors in their areas of expertise. The level of research you want to do for your fiction writing will depend on a range of considerations from your own preferred style of storytelling, to what you are aiming for in a particular story, the readers you may be hoping will enjoy your fiction, and so on.
What follows are a range of points regarding aspects which came up in the discussion:
You don’t have experience of fantasy worlds but you can still write about them
One panelist discussed how Isaac Asimov had been agoraphobic, spending much of his adult life in his home writing, and questioned if this limited Asimov’s ability to have a wide range of direct experience to draw on for use in his fiction. However, Asimov was still able to write stories about robots, other planets, etc (as well as about human behavior and emotions) which many readers have thoroughly enjoyed. One of the panelists also pointed out that Tolkien wrote about Hobbits, Middle Earth, magic rings etc without having direct experience of those, mentioning the influence of Wagner’s Ring Cycles opera.
You don’t have direct experience of the past (before your own life) or the future but you can still write about it
In historical fiction, although a fiction writer does not have direct experience of time periods before their own life, the writer can extrapolate backwards and make educated guesses about a range of details. Similarly, in futuristic fiction a fiction writer can extrapolate forwards and make educated guesses.
In a sense, a fiction writer is already limited to what that writer knows
If a writer doesn’t know about something, it won’t (and, by definition, can’t) occur to them to write about it.
However, since a fiction writer can know a little about something then extrapolate a lot of details based on guesses, using the advice of ‘write what you know’ to discourage relying more heavily than one could on guesswork might be better phrased ‘write what you know well’. The more familiar you are with something, the more detail you will have to draw on to use it realistically in a story.
Limits can be useful for helping to make fiction writing and reading interesting
If anything can happen, then it’s not interesting.
This goes for a writer’s experience while writing a story, in that until you make some choices about what you’re writing, and therefore put some limits on it, there will be no reason to choose something rather than something else.
Each fiction writer’s own knowledge, interests and preferences will provide spontaneous challenges and opportunities for creating stories. No-one knows everything and has an equal level of interest in and preference for everything. The unique way that each fiction writer selects topics for their stories and the unique ways in which they tell their stories help to make them interesting.
In another sense, if anything can happen in a story then it’s not interesting to read. In stories which have magic in them, for example, magic for which clear limits have been set and made clear to a reader is likely to be more interesting than magic for which a reader is thinking ‘why doesn’t the character just use their magic to solve their problem’. If a reader simply has no way of gaining at least a basic understanding of what can be done with the magic and by whom or what then the lack of understanding does not create suspense; it just creates no way of understanding the story properly. If part of the story is that the characters being followed themselves don’t know much about the magic, then the reader can be informed up to what the characters know.
Pay attention and write from observation
Kim Stanley Robinson (K.S.R.) gave the following example: On a 2 month trip he spent in Antarctica, he stayed at a base where there were around 10 times more men than women, and the women had used the saying, “The odds are good but the goods are odd.” On that trip, he also observed how pine needles sank individually into the snow instead of a bunch of pine needles melting a patch of snow around the whole bunch. By getting some first-hand experience in an area you intend to write about in your fiction, you can pick up all sorts of details and this knowledge can add up and contribute to a much more realistic and detailed depiction.
Do you assimilate research into ‘what you know’?
K.S.R. was treating ‘what you know’ as what you have personally experienced and observed whereas another panelist was leaning towards a conception of ‘what you know’ as “including research”. However, it is worth considering what can be known from what kinds of research.
Extrapolating a lot of guesswork based on a few details (aka modeling, applying theory, relying on referencing ‘experts’) is speculation; not knowledge. By reading non-fiction books you can know what was written in the books. Often, speculation is read in non-fiction books and a reader claims to then know things concerning what was written about. Even a direct description of a physical observation doesn’t allow someone to know what they could from making a similar physical observation for themself. Be careful to consider what you come to know from research, as opposed to someone else’s opinion, proposition or rhetorical argument you may have read, or what you may have extrapolated and made a guess about. You can start with secondary sources to get an idea of what area to research then go to primary sources, but for knowledge (rather than what someone else has claimed or proposed) you need direct physical observation. In situations for which direct experience is impossible or impractical you can propose that if someone else’s description of their own direct physical observation was accurate, as far as it impacts on what you’re concerned with, then that could be relied upon. Of course, you can’t just tack on a speculative theory about how to determine reliability of descriptions and have knowledge about what was described. You would still have a hypothetical proposition based on what someone else has written.
When much of the plot comes from research
K.S.R. said that he usually gets a general idea of what kind of story he wants to write, then researches that area and finds details to develop into the plot.
K.S.R. said that he makes up a narrator and write what he imagines the narrator knows, calling it projective imagination.
Imply that the narrator knows much more than what is told
If a reader thinks of what is told as a small fraction of what the narrator knows about the story world, you can create an experience for the reader much richer because they can imagine other details about the story world for themself.
Treating fiction like writing a fictionalised autobiography
By thinking how a character might write an autobiography of their life, or how you might write your autobiography of you were a particular character, you can work out which details in the fictional life of your character you would like to emphasise.
Know the staging of your story
Stage the story in your head.
One of the panelist’s advised : Write description which makes it clear what is happening physically in your story and the rest will come from that. A reader will have their own emotional responses to the physical details.
The Australian Literature Review