write what you know

Notes from a Worldcon panel led by Kaaron Warren with Jack Dann and Kim Stanley Robinson. This post is based on my own interpretation of the information. Feel free to comment below if you wish to correct anything.

Write what you know is one of the things workshop leaders and more experienced writers say to new writers in workshops, and that statement is the cause of much lamenting amongst those aspiring writers, because, really, what do we know? We’re boring wannabes with boring, suburban lives coloured by our western culture. We’re McDonalds and Desperate Housewives or Four Corners, New Scientist or The Financial Australian, and everything in between, but we’re not special, not interesting. Writing what we know would result in much same-ness, much bland-ness, much white-and-middle-class-ness because to be fair, what do most of us really know about other cultures, about crime and violence, about life in the 16th century, or, for that matter, about space travel?

Enter Kim Stanley Robinson.

It may come as a surprise to people who have read his Mars books, as it certainly was to me, that he holds a degree in English. I personally would have pegged him for a geologist, but there you go. Not a scientist at all. He says that if you write what you know, you have very little to say beyond an autobiography which in most cases wouldn’t be very interesting. Apparently Isaac Asimov was an agoraphobic who spent most of his days in his apartment. Did either IA or KSR write what they knew? Most certainly not.

Instead, they wrote what what they could find out.

Ah, research. Google, the library. Get every detail. Bury yourself in years of factual research, because, as Jack Dann reminded the audience tongue-in-cheek, the unspoken ‘rule’ is that only 10% of facts end up making it into the book. Writers are meant to have this vast store of factual knowledge about their subject that somehow gets stored in books full of notes.

Hold the phone.

Well, the books of notes may happen. But sometimes they do not. You may be writing about an obscure, or even less obscure, part of history about which there may not be all that much information, or about which the information you find is so exactly what you need to complete the story that you may not need to go any further. Of course, you usually end up becoming interested in the subject, and read more than required anyway, but that aside.

Kim Stanley Robinson said that for his Galileo book, he could find only 20 or so texts directly relevant to the subject. Some were in Italian only. For his Mars books, he obviously delved deep into everything we knew about the planet, a lot of which is based on various re-hashings of the same data, and about planetary atmospheres in general, but obviously no one knows the fine detail of going to Mars.

Neither does pure information convey a sense of reality, of a ‘feel’ for the place or the characters, which, as Jack Dann said, is vital for writing a story that engages the reader. All three writers agreed that it’s often more about the experience than about the facts.

Kaaron said that she lived in Fiji for a number of years and uses the experiences of daily life in Suva in her writing, not always in obvious ways.

Kim Stanley Robinson spent a few months in Antarctica to feel the sense of isolation. Experiences like this, while seemingly irrelevant to your subject matter, can prove very valuable. While you can find out the facts through books and online, there is a wealth of information for the writer in the small details of daily life that requires at the very least contact with someone who has experienced a particular environment. The small details make all the difference. He cited an example of an image of pine needles melting into the snow, which he used in one of his Mars books. The needles are warmed slightly by the sun and the process of deterioration and therefore sink deeper into the snow, creating little holes. If he hadn’t travelled to cold climates he would never have known this type of detail. It’s irrelevant in the general plot, but this type of detail makes a story real for the reader.

Jack Dann admitted to being not half as interesting.

But that’s OK.

Although Kim Stanley Robinson did a lot of research about the period, much of the actual information on Galileo he could find is in the book. He needed information on character, which is only found in a few lines in letters (apparently, Galileo was an arsehole). It is hard to come by this sort of information about real people, and it makes you realise that even historians have put their own interpretation on their writing. Everyone is coloured by the culture and time in which he or she lives. The line between fact and fiction becomes very thin. There are in fact people who believe we have already been to Mars.

But to get back to the subject, the trick is not to necessarily know a lot more than what is in the book, but to create the feel that the characters do. Don’t be timid to approach real-life researchers on a subject. Researchers love talking about their work. Often, the problem is not getting information from them, but getting them to shut up.

Read available books. Read what’s available online. Speak to experts if necessary, and let them check the results if you can. Most of all, try to get a ‘feel’ for your character and the setting by finding out as much detail about daily living conditions as you can, or by looking at similar settings.

Jack Dann pointed out the importance of being concise and clear in your use of language. If you don’t know the right word for a term, find out. Make sure the narrator sounds knowledgeable. This has more to do with writing technique than with the actual knowledge.

Kaaron Warren needed to write something about men on an oil rig, so she joined a chat group for them to become familiar with the vernacular.

Kim Stanley Robinson agreed, but also stated that it’s impossible to know everything. Readers will forgive you for this, as long as you don’t point at possible flaws, and gloss over trivial things that aren’t clear nor very important to the plot.

Overall, the mantra ‘write what you know’ probably does more harm than good. Kim Stanley Robinson even went as far as stating that it came from people like Hemmingway and Kerouac who had no imagination therefore they felt they needed to have experienced everything themselves (his words, not mine). Everyone, barring aliens who read this blog, is human, everyone knows human emotions. A story, a book, a trilogy is made up primarily of human emotions. This is what we know, and this is the main area in which a writer can stuff up. The facts you can find out.

Thanks Stan. You’re a legend.

Picture: Kim Stanley Robinson signing books. I got my copy of Red Mars signed by him (insert fangirl squee). I was enormously impressed by him, by his non-assuming manner and his interesting contributions to a number of panels I attended.

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4 comments on “write what you know

  1. Thank you Patty for this great report, and sharing world con with people who could not make it there.

    Write what you can find out, I like that. I always think I’m sieving the facts I find out through the mesh of what I know, which is my experience of being human.

  2. Loved this post – I have been told that bit of useless advice more times than I can count – often by fantasy and horror writers! I think they are trying to say ‘write what feels real’, or, ‘write characters you know’. I too like ‘write what you can find out’!

  3. Thanks Patty, I was really sorry to miss this panel and you have kindly filled a huge gap in my Aussiecon experience!

    What a relief to have KSR’s permission to go beyond my boring self – I was doing it anyway, but I confess to fearing someone would take my writer’s licence away if they caught me at it.

    His comment about those who recommend the WWYK practice also explains why I’ve never been able to get excited about Hemingway or Kerouac.

    *ducks to avoid flames from rabid fans*

    😉

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