Thursday, June 28, 2012

On "Write What You Know"

write what you know
Source: Flickr Creative Commons

Write what you know. We've all heard the advice before. Like most pithy writing advice, it's wise, correct, and utterly useless - especially when you're writing speculative fiction. Who "knows" what magic really feels like? And how limiting would it be to truly follow this advice? But there's a reason this has become such a truism: if you don't take it literally, there's more than a grain of wisdom here.

You know what you've read. If you want to write well, read lots. Part of this is so you can see different techniques and ideas. The other part is that you can't experience everything first hand. Some things need to come from second-hand sources, and what better way to learn something than through entertainment. For an example, my own first novel, A Land Before Time, is entering a scene on a sailboat - something I've never been on before. So I'm reading Robin Hobb's "A Ship of Magic," to get a fresh idea on what fantasy can look like on a ship. Note: Research other authors' facts before you use them in your own book. You never know what liberties they have taken, or whether they're wrong about something.

You can learn what you don't know. If you've never shot a gun before, one of the great ways to learn how one feels, looks, smells and sounds like is to shoot it. And if you don't know what kind of gun to give your characters, ask somebody who knows guns. Like the owner of the shooting range. This applies to every field. If you can't experience first hand, ask and expert, or read a "For Dummies" book.

Don't write everything you know. The sandworm from "Dune" is great, in part because Frank Herbert (an amateur ecologist) makes a great case for the reasons why it should exist in its world. But while you should explain many of the oddities present in your own fiction, your audience doesn't need to know every step of your world's evolutionary process. This mistake often hides itself int he dreaded info-dump. Beware.

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