Writing What You Know
(And Knowing What You Write)
by Tim Waggoner
One of the first bits of wisdom passed along to beginning
writers is to Write What You Know. On the surface, this seems
to be good advice. Young writers (young in terms of experience
and craft, if not necessarily age) have so much to master
-- characterization, plot, pacing, dialogue, point of view
-- that it helps to have raw story material ready to hand.
The easier it is to come up with ideas for stories, the easier
it will be for the beginner to plop his or her behind down
in front of the computer screen and start grinding out those
first million practice words. Plus, tapping ones own
experience for stories teaches a writer important skills in
observation, recall, and self-examination.
All well and good. But Write What You Know holds a special
frustration for the would-be author of fantasy, horror and
science fiction because by definition our stories deal with
things which for the most part dont exist (or at least
dont exist yet).
So what do beginners do? They draw on the only sources of
material they have -- or think they have -- books, stories,
TV shows and films. And usually the result is warmed-over
Tolkien, Stephen King or Star Trek. This isnt necessarily
a bad way to begin. Student painters often learn by copying
the works of masters, and many of todays most accomplished
authors went through their own periods of informal literary
apprenticeship. The problem is when beginners dont realize
theyre copying and thus delay, perhaps forever, developing
subject matter and a style -- a voice -- of their own.
You can Write What You Know in speculative fiction, though,
without having to rely so heavily on imitation. The trick
is to learn to interpret our little aphorism in different
First, you need to realize and -- perhaps more importantly
-- value what you already know. Review the events of your
life by creating what amounts to a basic character sketch
of yourself. Where were you born? Where did you grow up and
go to school? What was your family life like? Ethnic or religious
background? Jot down the details.
Now go over the inner landscape of your life, examining events
and situations that had an impact on you emotionally. Family
relationships, friendships, first loves, tragic losses, and
so on. Again, write notes.
Now take a look at the educational experiences youve
had and what you learned from them -- subjects that you studied
and enjoyed, camps you attended as a child, museums youve
visited, trips and vacations youve taken, training sessions
for work. Once more, take notes.
When youre finished, youll have a fairly decent
idea of what you already know -- experiences, events and knowledge
that are yours and yours alone. You can use these notes as
grist for the story mill. For example, when I was five, my
aunt took me shopping at a large department store and somehow
we became separated. Lost and scared, I panicked, running
up and down the aisles searching for her, not calling her
name (though I desperately wanted to) because I was a shy
child afraid of embarrassing my aunt by shouting.
An emotional event for me, one whose details I can recall
quite clearly to this day. How can I turn this into speculative
fiction? By using my imagination to transform my experience.
Fantasy: Im a youngster with latent magical abilities
and my guardian/teacher has purposely lost me in a large,
confusing, frightening place -- city streets or forest --
in the hope of forcing my talents to come to the fore. Ill
need to use my powers to find my aunt and protect myself from
the dangers surrounding me. If I dont, Ill die.
Horror: The reason my aunt has lost me is that she no longer
knows who I am. In fact, as far as shes concerned, Ive
Science Fiction: My aunt and I are members of a tribe of
space-traveling nomads visiting a port on a strange world.
Not only I am separated from my aunt, but I have to deal with
an alien culture. When I finally reconnect with my aunt, I
learn that she abandoned me on purpose, to teach me a hard
lesson about learning to fend for myself in an alien environment
-- a vital survival skill for our people.
Not great ideas in and of themselves, perhaps, but theyre
places to start. And all grown from the seed of one experience
that probably lasted less than five minutes. Your life is
full of such seeds; you only need recognize them and apply
a liberal dose of imagination.
After youve realized what you already know, you can
take the next step: expanding what you know through research,
taking classes, and conducting interviews.
Research in and of itself is simple, if time-consuming, scut
work. Use a tip that a professor passed along to me in grad
school to make your research more efficient -- get someone
else to do the work for you. Now this doesnt mean hiring
someone to be your research assistant (as convenient as one
might be). It means researching smart. Need to know something
about time paradoxes for a story? You can read dozens and
books and articles on the subject, piecing together bits of
information on your own. Or you can read a book like Time
Travel, a volume in the Writers Digest Science Fiction
Writing Series. The author has researched time travel theory
for you and collected his findings in one easy-to-use reference.
Need something complicated explained in an easy-to-understand
fashion, perhaps with some clarifying visuals? Try childrens
nonfiction books. Theyre written so kids (and anyone
else for that matter) can read them easily, they cover core
concepts and provide pictures and diagrams. One of the best
reference works I have is The Medieval Castle by Fiona Macdonald.
Its chock full of interesting facts about castles and
contains tons of detailed drawings. Adult reference works
might tell you more about castles, but this book shows you.
Taking classes is an excellent way to expand what you know.
Ron Sarti, author of the wonderful fantasy novels The Chronicles
of Scar, Legacy of the Ancients and the forthcoming Lanterns
of God, takes riding classes in order to learn more about
horsemanship and add further verisimilitude to his novels.
Classes and workshops on just about anything are offered by
colleges, adult education programs, libraries, and museums.
You can also fall back on the most common way humans have
of obtaining information: talking to people. Need to know
something about early human civilization? Call up an anthropology
professor at a nearby university. Some years back, I was working
on a story about a lycanthrope. I knew wolves have a keen
sense of smell and hearing, but I had no idea how good their
eyesight was. I had the impression that canine eyesight is
poor, but I wasnt certain, and I couldnt find
any mention of lupine visual ability in any of the books Id
gotten from the library. I needed to know what my main character
would -- or would not -- be able to see once he had assumed
wolf form. I called a naturalist at a nearby park and found
out that wolves actually have quite good eyesight. If I hadnt
checked, I wouldve gone with my earlier, mistaken impression,
to the detriment of my story.
Research isnt only sifting through what other people
have written or listening to what they have to say. As writers,
we need more than mere facts; we need sensory and psychological
impressions of our own in order to create a reality on the
page. We need direct experience.
Writing about a character whos a groom in a stable?
Get a part-time job on a horse farm. Offer to work for free,
if necessary. Your payment is the experience youll gain,
which is far more valuable to you as a writer than mere money.
Mystery author Patricia Cornwell worked part-time in a coroners
office to gain first-hand knowledge of forensic science for
her best-selling novels.
Writing a story about dragons? Visit a zoo and observe how
the alligators, snakes and lizards move. Watch the elephants
and rhinos. Then go home and use your observations to create
a realistic, believable dragon on the page -- one drawn from
your own experience.
Writing about medieval times? Visit a renaissance fair. Smell
the food cooking, listen to musicians strumming their lutes,
feel your teeth rattle as jousting knights exchange lance
blows. (Of course, youll have to ignore the ATM machine
labeled "Kings exchequer.")
During a World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore, some friends
and I wandered down to the tourist attractions on the waterfront.
While others headed for the restaurants and shopping, we made
straight for a dry-docked submarine and walked through it,
taking in the details and imagining what life aboard must
have been like. In many ways, theres not much difference
between traveling undersea and journeying through space, so
with a little tweaking of my imagination, the submarine became
an interstellar craft. Now I can write more realistically
about spaceflight because, in a sense, Ive toured a
Writers of speculative fiction can write what they know simply
by realizing and valuing their current knowledge, becoming
more effective researchers, and gaining direct experience
in creative ways. Of course, the best advice for how to write
what you know was given to us by Henry James: "Try to
be one of the people on whom nothing is lost."
Live fully, live deeply, and write.