If you spend much time studying the writing process, you’ve heard the advice to write what you know. As with other bits of pseudowisdom, this sounds good until we analyze it. For example, I write science fiction and westerns. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I don’t know from living on the Moon or wandering the Old West–not in the sense of personal experience, at least. So what’s a writer such as I supposed to do?
First off, a better piece of easy advice might be to write what you research. A while ago, I wrote a short story, The Driving Flame, which has my western character, Henry Dowland, battling a gang of toughs along the line of the first transcontinental railroad. All I knew about said project was what any schoolchild (who pays attention–a rare breed) knows. That wasn’t nearly enough to sustain a story about a specific period. To prepare for the writing, I read a weighty tome (redundant, much?) on the subject, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. Some might say that reading an 816 page book for a twenty-some-odd page story is excessive, but I enjoy history, and I want to get the details right. If I’m going to say that something existed in Cheyenne in 1867, I damn well want to know that I stand on solid ground in saying it.
This goes against another bit of pseudowisdom that a person ought just to write. That’s fine for writers who enjoy going back and making huge changes ex post facto, but I’m not that kind of writer. I write slowly, and only when I know what I’m talking about. Is that writing what I know? It’s writing what I’ve researched. Again, I didn’t live in the period, so I can’t claim to “know,” if by knowing we mean something that I’ve experienced.
The beauty of writing in this present age is that information is available. If you want to know what the top of Mount Everest or the inside of an Old West mine, pictures are on the Web. As a substitute for personal experience, this works well for an author, though it removes the excuse of needing a vacation to be able to write. (Really, honey, I do need to spend three months in Nepal for this stunning piece of literature that I’m working on…)
But as I’ve said, this is not the form of knowing that our Founts of Wisdom (TM) proclaim. Uh huh. So? The real question here is what writing is about. Travelogues are about a place and time. Good for them. But literature is about human beings. (Even if they’re rabbits or Klingons.) When we write stories worth reading, we’re exploring what it means to be human.
That takes a bit of explaining. Good stories are about characters, not events. The plot is a vehicle that shows us how characters act and react, based on their natures. Bad stories are just a series of events. (And no, Dan Brown, you don’t get a link.) That being the case, authors who care about the craft are writing something of what they know.
There’s more to be said, though. (You knew that was coming, no? [Just as you knew there'd be a parenthetical statement?]) Various writers have said words to the effect of “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” What that means is that writing is the process of discovery. What we know expands when we write. We see the world in a new way. We explore a new means of dealing with life. We plumb new depths of the human condition.
As an example of this, I now see that “write what you know” in fact does have some good advice in it. How would I have known about that if I hadn’t written it?