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 one’s 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 don’t exist (or at least don’t 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 isn’t necessarily a bad way to begin. Student painters often learn by copying the works of masters, and many of today’s most accomplished authors went through their own periods of informal literary apprenticeship. The problem is when beginners don’t realize they’re 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 ways.

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 you’ve had and what you learned from them — subjects that you studied and enjoyed, camps you attended as a child, museums you’ve visited, trips and vacations you’ve taken, training sessions for work. Once more, take notes.

When you’re finished, you’ll 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: I’m 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. I’ll need to use my powers to find my aunt and protect myself from the dangers surrounding me. If I don’t, I’ll die.

Horror: The reason my aunt has lost me is that she no longer knows who I am. In fact, as far as she’s concerned, I’ve never existed.

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 they’re 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 you’ve 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 doesn’t 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 Writer’s 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 children’s nonfiction books. They’re 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. It’s 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 wasn’t certain, and I couldn’t find any mention of lupine visual ability in any of the books I’d 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 hadn’t checked, I would’ve gone with my earlier, mistaken impression, to the detriment of my story.

Research isn’t 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 who’s 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 you’ll gain, which is far more valuable to you as a writer than mere money. Mystery author Patricia Cornwell worked part-time in a coroner’s 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, you’ll have to ignore the ATM machine labeled “King’s 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, there’s 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, I’ve toured a spaceship.

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.