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Write What You Know (1 Viewer)

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MistWolf

Senior Member
I'm spinning this off the Worst Advice thread.

Write What You Know

I'm watching L.A.s Finest and this guy falls out out of the sky and crushes an exoticar. Turns out he was tossed out of a helicopter.

Here's the dialogue the victim's partner gives the police-

"We just got a new helo. A big Robinson R44. Lowell figured if we could take up a few more people at a time, we could make a few extra bucks. We were in debt up to our eyeballs. Lowell loved the company... He really blamed himself that we weren't doing great. We're partners but he was the business guy. I just flew the helos. We were up in the R44 doing an initial FAA AD eval."

"Just the two of you?"

"Yeah. We're up and Lowell is distracted. Out of nowhere, he throws the door open. Only takes a second for the downwash to catch him. It was all I can do to keep the helo on axis against the wash. Lowell was gone."

Ok. Maybe it's bad advice to only write what you know, but you'd better know what you write. If you don't know something, find out. Don't try to bullshit your way out of it.

A Big Robinson R44- Robbies aren't big helicopters. They were designed to be simple affordable helicopters for the everyman. The four seat R44 is big compared to the two seat R22 made by the same company. But R44s aren't big helicopters.

Take a Few More People- An R44 is a four seater. Anything smaller would be a two seater. In a four seater, a tour company can take three clients. A two seater can take one. Considering what it costs to run a helicopter per hour, no one is going to pay to take a tour on an R22 alone. Most clients will gather two other friends and split the costs three ways.


We Were Up In The R44 Doing An Initial FAA AD Eval- An AD is an Airworthiness Directive. It's a document that must be complied with for an aircraft to be airworthy. You don't take aircraft up for an "Initial FAA AD Eval". You take aircraft up for a test flight or a maintenance test flight.

Only Takes A Second For The Downwash To Catch Him- First, I've never tried to open the door of any of our helicopters in flight, but have flown in one that had the doors removed. There is no downwash coming into the cabin to catch you. Second, no one is going up in an R44 without their seatbelts fastened. Part of the preflight checklist s to ensure everyone is buckled up.

It Was All I Can Do To Keep The Helo On Axis Against The Wash- First, no pilot talks like this. Pilots are more likely to say something like "It was all I could do to keep the bird in the air." Second, the helicopter is always "in the wash".

Of course, the statement is rehearsed and a lie and it turns out the victim was pushed out of the helicopter to his death. But the victim wasn't coerced. They went up to cut in the victim on their illegal activities. When he turned them down, one of the badguys pushed the victim out on impulse. The badguy would have had to reach across the victim, unlatch the door and unlatch the seatbelt.

I get that as writers, we're not always gonna get it right. But the writers of this show didn't even try. They looked up a bunch of aviation words and strung them together without a clue as to what they mean. Not only were the writers sloppy and and lazy, they assumed the audience isn't smart enough to know the difference.

Maybe we don't have to stick to writing what we know. But we'd better know what we're writing whether it's speculative fiction or takes place in the real world. We can get away with breaking the rules of writing. But if we break the rules of the world we're writing in, we'll lose our readers.
 

Bloggsworth

WF Veterans
They didn't know what they didn't know - You know but, seemingly, you expect others to know what you know - Bring back Rumsfeld I say...
 

MistWolf

Senior Member
They didn't know what they didn't know - You know but, seemingly, you expect others to know what you know - Bring back Rumsfeld I say...
No, I don't expect them to know what I know. But just grabbing some phrases off the internet and slapping them together without a care to their meaning?

Packing that much derp in one scene takes a special talent.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Having made a lifelong career of software development, I get to roll my eyes almost every time the subject comes up in a script. The same is true of shots of rooms full of mainframe computer equipment and discussions about what the characters are doing with it.

Plus, I can't count how many times an "answer" has appeared on a CRT, one slowly presented letter at a time, with accompanying teletype clacking.

Particularly in the 70s, the capabilities of computers were overblown every time writers included them in a script ... and that still happens today.

A similar thing happens whenever you see chess in a TV show or movie. Rarely does the board show a sensible position, and dialogue about games will insult the intelligence of any player with an iota of tournament experience.

Now we'll combine that with computers. An episode of Mission Impossible (a show I enjoy, btw), had Roland Hand of the team playing a match against a noted grandmaster, and they supposedly fed him moves from a chess computer. In reality, it would be more than a decade after that time before any computer chess program could hold its own against even an average player. In 1997, it took a dedicated IBM super computer with a team of developers--using software that no doubt had many thousands of man hours in development--to narrowly defeat World Champ Garry Kasparov in a six game match. Mission Impossible had Barney (their engineer extraordinaire) whip up a grandmaster beating program in, at most, a few days. :)
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Isn't it a misinterpretation of 'write what you know' that causes problems? What it means, and I've always taken it to mean, is use your own experiences of grief, love, lust, hatred, disappointment, passion etc. It doesn't mean tell us about when you went to the shop to buy a pair of shoes, unless the guy selling you those shoes was called Grut and had a hunch.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Maybe we don't have to stick to writing what we know. But we'd better know what we're writing whether it's speculative fiction or takes place in the real world. But if we break the rules of the world we're writing in, we'll lose our readers.

These few sentences sum up the problem of writing discussion so often revolving around semantic games more than anything else.

There is no significant difference in English between the advice 'writing what you know' and 'knowing what you write'. They literally mean the same thing, just like 'you ride a bicycle' and 'a bicycle is ridden by you' mean the exact same thing in every way that matters.

Similarly, there are no rules of writing that matter other than the 'world we're writing in'. The world either makes sense to the reader, and through making sense becomes appealing to them, or it doesn't. There is no duality of rules -- because why would there be? The Phantom Tollbooth defies plenty of rules that might exist in other books, yet the fact it is a successful novel destroys the notion that there are any valid rules beyond the book in the first place. The vast spectrum of fiction and the history of its development undermines any belief that rules are some fixed thing that cannot change according to the needs of each text.

Of course you must write what you know. It is a necessary truth, because if you -- the author -- do not know it and 'it' is necessary for the story then how is that circle to be squared?

What is missing from the advice (to no real fault of the advice itself, more those who interpret it) is:

(1) That knowledge is not a static thing. Every day what we 'know' changes based on things we experience, read about, etc. What you know when you start a book is unlikely to be the same as when you finish it. Research exists.

(2) That there are different dimensions to knowing most things. Beyond the basics, most things are multi-faceted. For instance, what does it mean to know about Hitler? There are many dimensions to Hitler, after all. One can possibly 'know Hitler' by knowing his life story, height, dates of service, whatever. That's one definition of 'knowing Hitler'. But one can also 'know Hitler' by knowing about his political philosophy, that is another definition. One can ALSO know Hitler from studying his motivations, his psychology. Conclusion: It is possible to know any one of these facets and 'know Hitler' without knowing much about the others. I could have a great understanding of Hitler and have no idea the name of the town he grew up in. So, what? So, knowing things is usually quite complex, and arguably there is no standard of absolute. It is possible to read every book about Hitler and still not properly know him. So, the very concept of knowledge is often relative anyway.

(3) With points #1 and #2 in mind, point #3 is relevancy. This is the most important of all. What is needed for the story? Who is the reader? What is the goal? It was not necessary for Mary Shelley to understand a great deal about anatomy to write Frankenstein to the standard of being a great novel...but it was undoubtedly necessary she understood some. Jules Verne had no formal studies in science, at least nothing advanced, and yet his books incorporate plenty of science. Would Verne's work have been improved by knowing more science? Possibly, but not necessarily, we don't know. Would they have been worse if he had known less? Probably. All we know is what we have and it is clear that Verne's work incorporated exactly the right amount of scientific understanding to be effective. That is the only standard that matters.
 

Foxee

Patron
Patron
As someone without a specific knowledge of helicopters I still have seen enough movies (ha! I know, I know...) with people flying around in helicopters without doors on (military, etc.) to know that you're not going to get 'sucked out' by the wash of the blades. Rescue crews who use helicopters to bring people up to the cabin from the ground while the chopper is in the air would have a really hard time if the wash did something like that.
Ok. Maybe it's bad advice to only write what you know, but you'd better know what you write. If you don't know something, find out. Don't try to bullshit your way out of it.
Probably the best wording of the advice to write what you know that I've seen so far. Well put.

And now I know exactly who to hit up for advice and beta reading if I have a helicopter scene. :D Beware, MistWolf!
 

MistWolf

Senior Member
These few sentences sum up the problem of writing discussion so often revolving around semantic games more than anything else.

There is no significant difference in English between the advice 'writing what you know' and 'knowing what you write'. They literally mean the same thing, just like 'you ride a bicycle' and 'a bicycle is ridden by you' mean the exact same thing in every way that matters.

Don't take this personally but-
MINDLESS RANT ON BECAUSE- Two buzzwords I find really annoying are "semantics" and "literally". In my experience, they are over used and improperly at that. Too many times I've seen "semantics" used to dismiss points people don't understand. Literally is usually employed as an unneeded exclamation point and rarely in the correct context.-MINDLESS RANT OFF

It may seem like it's the same way, such as your example of riding a bicycle. But it's not the same and it's not semantics either. Writing is a doing, so let's look at doing.

DO WHAT YOU KNOW-
When I go looking for a job, I look for jobs I know how to do to maximize my income. The job I know is Aviation Maintenance. I know how to keep aircraft flying safely. I know how to troubleshoot. I know how to document my work.

In writing, I can draw on my experience as an AirFrame & Powerplant technician to write about a character who travels around the country to fix aircraft and gets himself in trouble when he opens a floorboard and finds a mysterious bundle duct taped to the airframe.

KNOW WHAT YOU DO- Before tackling a job, I gotta know what I'm doing. Let's say the port engine of the Beech Baron isn't making power and the problem is traced to the engine's right hand magneto because the breaker is worn beyond allowable. Before removing the magneto, I need to look up what magneto the airplane has and whether or not I have the facilities to tear down the mag, replace the worn parts and set the internal timing.

Let's say this is important to the plot. Our traveling technician finds out the Beech Baron being used for nefarious activities can't make take off power because the mags are bad. He has to get the Baron in the air because if he doesn't, Sal & Guido will Make Bad Things Happen. As a writer, I must know what I write because it impacts the story. My description of the problem is correct and contains no "let's just wing it" bullshit. Yet, it sounds like gobledygook because understandably, you have no idea what I'm talking about. As a writer, I have to know what I write so it makes sense to the reader. I have to know what I do, what I write, so I can understand it's impact. For example, I could go into detail explaining all the details a reader needs to know what a magneto is and how it affects engine power and thus put my readers to sleep. Or, could simply have our hero tell the guys in black suits & sunglasses the mags are giving weak ignition and all four need replacing. That's knowing what I write.

Similarly, there are no rules of writing that matter other than the 'world we're writing in'. The world either makes sense to the reader, and through making sense becomes appealing to them, or it doesn't. There is no duality of rules -- because why would there be? The Phantom Tollbooth defies plenty of rules that might exist in other books, yet the fact it is a successful novel destroys the notion that there are any valid rules beyond the book in the first place. The vast spectrum of fiction and the history of its development undermines any belief that rules are some fixed thing that cannot change according to the needs of each text.

What we call "Rules of Writing" are "Guidelines to Getting Published". We don't have to follow those rules (or guidelines, if you prefer) but publishers don't have to publish our works.

The Phantom Tollbooth sets all sorts of rules on their heads, but does so by following its own set of rules. If it broke it's own set of rules, it would break the reader's suspension of disbelief

Of course you must write what you know. It is a necessary truth, because if you -- the author -- do not know it and 'it' is necessary for the story then how is that circle to be squared?

What is missing from the advice (to no real fault of the advice itself, more those who interpret it) is:

(1) That knowledge is not a static thing. Every day what we 'know' changes based on things we experience, read about, etc. What you know when you start a book is unlikely to be the same as when you finish it. Research exists.
Very good points

(2) That there are different dimensions to knowing most things. Beyond the basics, most things are multi-faceted. For instance, what does it mean to know about Hitler? There are many dimensions to Hitler, after all. One can possibly 'know Hitler' by knowing his life story, height, dates of service, whatever. That's one definition of 'knowing Hitler'. But one can also 'know Hitler' by knowing about his political philosophy, that is another definition. One can ALSO know Hitler from studying his motivations, his psychology. Conclusion: It is possible to know any one of these facets and 'know Hitler' without knowing much about the others. I could have a great understanding of Hitler and have no idea the name of the town he grew up in. So, what? So, knowing things is usually quite complex, and arguably there is no standard of absolute. It is possible to read every book about Hitler and still not properly know him. So, the very concept of knowledge is often relative anyway.
That's just semantics and Hitler was literally an Anti-Semantic! (Feel free to insert RANT ON here.)

(3) With points #1 and #2 in mind, point #3 is relevancy. This is the most important of all. What is needed for the story? Who is the reader? What is the goal? It was not necessary for Mary Shelley to understand a great deal about anatomy to write Frankenstein to the standard of being a great novel...but it was undoubtedly necessary she understood some. Jules Verne had no formal studies in science, at least nothing advanced, and yet his books incorporate plenty of science. Would Verne's work have been improved by knowing more science? Possibly, but not necessarily, we don't know. Would they have been worse if he had known less? Probably. All we know is what we have and it is clear that Verne's work incorporated exactly the right amount of scientific understanding to be effective. That is the only standard that matters.
I agree Mary Shelly and Jules Verne didn't "know" science, but makes my point. They knew what they were writing and stayed in their lane. Neither used bullshit gobledygook in their story. They knew the rules of their fictional world and never broke them.

Let me finish with a good example of a writer not knowing what they wrote-
We Were Up In The R44 Doing An Initial FAA AD Eval- An AD is an Airworthiness Directive. It's a document that must be complied with for an aircraft to be airworthy. You don't take aircraft up for an "Initial FAA AD Eval". You take aircraft up for a test flight or a maintenance test flight.
The above paragraph is written in a way that it sound like "an initial FAA AD Eval" is called "a maintenance test flight". Nothing could be further from the truth.

ADs are regulatory documents that must be complied for an aircraft to be airworthy. The documents and the aircraft are evaluated by the technician (not the FAA) for compliance during an inspection performed on the ground. Preferably in a hangar that's heated in the winter and cooled in the summer (not the other way around as is usually the case). Test flights are performed after all inspections and maintenance have been completed.

I don't know what knucklebutt wrote that, but he should have his keyboard privileges revoked!- At least until he cleans the catbox and gets the laundry done.
 
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MistWolf

Senior Member
As someone without a specific knowledge of helicopters I still have seen enough movies (ha! I know, I know...) with people flying around in helicopters without doors on (military, etc.) to know that you're not going to get 'sucked out' by the wash of the blades. Rescue crews who use helicopters to bring people up to the cabin from the ground while the chopper is in the air would have a really hard time if the wash did something like that.

Probably the best wording of the advice to write what you know that I've seen so far. Well put.

And now I know exactly who to hit up for advice and beta reading if I have a helicopter scene. :D Beware, MistWolf!
If I can be of help, I will.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I get that as writers, we're not always gonna get it right. But the writers of this show didn't even try. They looked up a bunch of aviation words and strung them together without a clue as to what they mean. Not only were the writers sloppy and and lazy, they assumed the audience isn't smart enough to know the difference.

Maybe we don't have to stick to writing what we know. But we'd better know what we're writing whether it's speculative fiction or takes place in the real world. We can get away with breaking the rules of writing. But if we break the rules of the world we're writing in, we'll lose our readers.

I totally hear you on this! One of my pet peeves when watching cop shows, is how tough and colloquial all the cops are. I've never been a cop, but I doubt they all speak like that. When you see one in real life giving a public statement, they sound so articulate and rational...even gentle.

Or something that I do know, like the corporate working environment. Typically leaders are portrayed as being a little on the acerbic side, saying things like "ok people, listen up", or constantly referring to people by their last names, or treating people like dirt. 30 years in the corporate world, it was not my experience. Leaders were often soft spoken and respectful...employee engagement is a big thing with strong leaders. I was however, grateful for the Don Draper character, I thought he acted more like leaders I had reported to. I thought that whole Mad Men series was pretty realistic. But I doubt that the writers had all been in the advertising business. So expecting people to write what they "already" know is unrealistic. But, they should do the research to avoid any mishaps as you have described.

When I started to write my first novel, I thought, Make it easy, write something you know. Afterall, I have had three careers: musician, fashion designer, accountant; have traveled all over the world, and lived in multiple countries. But do I choose something I know? No...lol! My protagonist is a financial journalist. At 45K words, I discovered a huge hole in the plot because I didn't really understand her work environment. So I stopped and did a bunch of research. And actually, I found that to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing. I learned about a different industry. And I plan to get a journalist to beta read it as well. And in the end, I think it will turn out better, because I won't make assumptions about what the reader may know or not. I just finished reading a novel written by the first female stockbroker. She set it in the Chicago Stock Exchange. But I found many of her descriptions of certain transactions were not clear. It's hard to write about something you know a lot about for someone who knows very little. I found myself having to google certain transactions and teach myself so I could follow the plot.

Slightly off topic, but amusing, is a physics professor who once explained to me why he felt compelled to retire. He said, he couldn't understand why students didn't comprehend the subject matter, because he couldn't remember what it was like not to know it himself. So he just couldn't figure out anymore what to say to help people get it.

 
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vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Mistwolf, it may interest you to know that there is at least one essay concerning the difference between "write what you know", and "know what you write". That essay starts out with the typical meandering lack of specificity for "write what you know", but gets very specific when it discusses "know what you write":

"Know what you write" means research, learn, identify, and immerse yourself in your chosen subject."

I can agree with this definition with confidence.

There exists a blog with short essays by 31 successful authors, each of whom gives slightly or widely divergent takes on "write what you know", even to the point of dismissing the advice. Toni Morrison says she told a class "Don't write what you know, because you don't know anything".

A few of the authors' comments involved the observation that most people don't have very much of interest in their own lives, nor wide experience, so to write anything interesting they'd better be ready to branch out.

To digest all of the comments of those 31 authors and several other blogs, here's what it boils down to:
Make it make sense.

Whether what we're writing involves a technical description, a battle, details of part of the world, an emotional response, a daily routine, or a conversation, we have to make it make sense. If we don't know what we're writing about through research, experience, observation, or conscientiously laying a foundation for our milieu, our ability to make sense becomes hit and miss. A miss means a risk of popping our reader out of immersion and potentially losing the reader entirely.
 
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Llyralen

Senior Member
I totally agree with "finding out" and it worries me when I feel like I don't have all the resources that I need. This is inspiring me to ask a few questions in the research thread just in case someone knows something like what you know about helicopters.
Thank you!
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
I totally agree with "finding out" and it worries me when I feel like I don't have all the resources that I need. This is inspiring me to ask a few questions in the research thread just in case someone knows something like what you know about helicopters.
Thank you!

google is my friend.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
And googleearth and youtube. Youtube shows me a lot of what I'm looking for, but... actually... there's a LOT of information that I need that is not readily available. Things about people's experiences and memories.

True - nothing trumps direct experience... which is why I often suggest that writers take a self defense class if they're planning on writing action scenes.
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
There is no significant difference in English between the advice 'writing what you know' and 'knowing what you write'. They literally mean the same thing, just like 'you ride a bicycle' and 'a bicycle is ridden by you' mean the exact same thing in every way that matters.

Have you never read the Mad Hatter's tea party scene from 'Alice' ? The two injunctions are not the same, literally or metaphorically.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
It may seem like it's the same way, such as your example of riding a bicycle. But it's not the same and it's not semantics either. Writing is a doing, so let's look at doing.

DO WHAT YOU KNOW-
When I go looking for a job, I look for jobs I know how to do to maximize my income. The job I know is Aviation Maintenance. I know how to keep aircraft flying safely. I know how to troubleshoot. I know how to document my work.

In writing, I can draw on my experience as an AirFrame & Powerplant technician to write about a character who travels around the country to fix aircraft and gets himself in trouble when he opens a floorboard and finds a mysterious bundle duct taped to the airframe.

KNOW WHAT YOU DO- Before tackling a job, I gotta know what I'm doing. Let's say the port engine of the Beech Baron isn't making power and the problem is traced to the engine's right hand magneto because the breaker is worn beyond allowable. Before removing the magneto, I need to look up what magneto the airplane has and whether or not I have the facilities to tear down the mag, replace the worn parts and set the internal timing.

Three options seem to exist:

1."I have been a truck driver all my life. I have done no other job. Therefore if I am writing about workplace occupations in detail I should only, or mainly, write about truck drivers".

^This could also be described as 'write what you know'.

2. "I have been a truck driver all my life. I have done no other job. Therefore if I am writing about workplace occupations in detail, I will ensure I do careful research on any workplace occupations that are not truck driving. In addition, the AMOUNT of research I do will be approximately equal to the degree of departure from what I know as a truck driver -- e.g. if writing about an astronaut or a movie actor I will research more intensively than if I am writing about a train driver, as the train driver more closely resembles my knowledge sphere than being an astronaut or movie actor. I will also take into account the importance -- do I just need to know about astronauts for a single scene, or the whole thing? My research will reflect relevancy."

^ This could be iterated as 'know what you write'.

3. "I can do whatever I want however i want and you can't stop me so suck it".

^Ignorance.

I feel like we are probably both mostly on #2 (?) and I want to believe most [good] writers are.

I don't know many who are on #1. Actually, I'm not sure I have ever met any. Non fiction writers, maybe? Travel writers who only write autobiographically? Most people don't adhere rigidly to 'write what you know' because as well as being so severely limiting it is actually bad for the writer long term. It is bad because it removes so much of the challenge that develops good writers. I don't know if Stephen King's writing improved significantly the first time he wrote a novel that was not set in Maine, but I know mine has been enriched by not always writing about 'American guy in American city does American things'.

Again, I agree there is a conceptual difference between #1 and #2 of course but they both ultimately require knowing where the third one doesn't. If the point you are making is to highlight that the difference between 1 and 2 is important, I cannot disagree. I just don't honestly know if there are many people who rigidly adhere to #1 -- as common sense seems to imply that #2 is a form of number one, that it is simply #1 that takes into account learning.

I do, however, know there are lots of writers who -- publicly or privately -- subscribe to #3. I know this because I read them a lot, on here and other places. As a former lawyer, I am confronted daily by the abuses of laypeople who think that twenty minutes of reading about Miranda Rights on Wikipedia makes them John Grisham. This is actually quite a serious problem, because it misrepresents the truth on things that might actually be important.

How many young people have died as a result of going to fight in wars based on inaccurate, fictional accounts of what war is like? Probably millions. So when people dismiss 'write what you know', I find it quite insidious. Do we not want some standards here? I don't want to see war portrayed as bloodless and I don't want to see the law portrayed as some sort of game. I sure as shit don't want to see politics portrayed conspiratorially regardless of how 'entertaining' it is, because beyond a certain point it is both inaccurate and harmful. I don't like to give Oliver Stone a hard time because the man's a good director and it's honestly not really his fault, but I absolutely wonder how much of the Current Problem people have with institutional mistrust comes down to shit like 'JFK'.

Again, it's a thin line to walk, we just need to all be careful regarding perceptions. We need to be responsible. Writing what you know isn't just to appease random aviation engineers or lawyers but, ultimately, comes down to contributing positively to the body of truth that the world depends on.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
Research is important for good writing because no one can know everything. Like most here, I've searched the web for info on a number of shady things (how to blow up a train, how to build a pipe bomb, etc.) - so I'm probably on an NSA watch-list.

That said though, experience brings depth and authenticity to our work. What's lit like to ride a motorcycle across the Mojave? You may not ever do that, but you can ask a friend what it's like. What's it like to fall in love? What's it like to wake up in the hospital after a concussion? What does gunsmoke smell like? What does the market street in a small town in Italy smell like? What's it like to sit in an Irish Pub (in Ireland)?

I could go on and on - experience is best but often impossible, and in that case do research.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Research is important for good writing because no one can know everything. Like most here, I've searched the web for info on a number of shady things (how to blow up a train, how to build a pipe bomb, etc.) - so I'm probably on an NSA watch-list.

That said though, experience brings depth and authenticity to our work. What's lit like to ride a motorcycle across the Mojave? You may not ever do that, but you can ask a friend what it's like. What's it like to fall in love? What's it like to wake up in the hospital after a concussion? What does gunsmoke smell like? What does the market street in a small town in Italy smell like? What's it like to sit in an Irish Pub (in Ireland)?

I could go on and on - experience is best but often impossible, and in that case do research.

Beyond research, I think it's also really important (in some cases, maybe more important) to be attuned to overlaps between experiences.

My current WIP has a scene where a young pregnant woman goes to meet her husband at a railway station, expecting him to be on the arriving train of soldiers returning from World War One, only to discover he had actually been killed in action on Armistice Day.

That is honestly a much harder scene to write than I realized. The unique emotional experience coupled with the historical period makes it multi-faceted. I can research the station, I know what a station is like. The emotional part? I had to look for overlaps between what her experience might be like and what mine have been like. I have never lost a spouse. I have never had anybody go away to a war, let alone a war like World War One.

The only way to overcome it was to focus not on the experience singularly but break it down to its component parts. That is, I think, how most writers do it (I don't know how else). In this case, there were

(1) What is it like to go to meet somebody and find they have not showed up (for any reason?
(2) What is it like to find out somebody you love is gone (not necessarily dead, but gone and unreachable)?
(3) What would it be like if both of those things were true at the same time?
(4) What would it be like if this combined-experience took place in a 1918 railway station? What unique aspects does that environment present? (research time!)

By combining, you can pastiche the experience. In my opinion, that is 'writing what you know'. While it may not be as pure a form of it as writing an actual lived experience, it's the next best thing and, so long as it is done well, it is without dishonesty.

Now, it may be the case that this technique still results in mistakes. I am inclined to believe that those mistakes will, usually, be fairly trivial. If somehow they are not, that is a job hazard -- you can't be right all the time. The important thing is that we try.

Perhaps a better guideline than 'write what you know' is 'write what you find credible'?
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
Beyond research, I think it's also really important (in some cases, maybe more important) to be attuned to overlaps between experiences.

My current WIP has a scene where a young pregnant woman goes to meet her husband at a railway station, expecting him to be on the arriving train of soldiers returning from World War One, only to discover he had actually been killed in action on Armistice Day.

That is honestly a much harder scene to write than I realized. The unique emotional experience coupled with the historical period makes it multi-faceted. I can research the station, I know what a station is like. The emotional part? I had to look for overlaps between what her experience might be like and what mine have been like. I have never lost a spouse. I have never had anybody go away to a war, let alone a war like World War One.

The only way to overcome it was to focus not on the experience singularly but break it down to its component parts. That is, I think, how most writers do it (I don't know how else). In this case, there were

(1) What is it like to go to meet somebody and find they have not showed up (for any reason?
(2) What is it like to find out somebody you love is gone (not necessarily dead, but gone and unreachable)?
(3) What would it be like if both of those things were true at the same time?
(4) What would it be like if this combined-experience took place in a 1918 railway station? What unique aspects does that environment present? (research time!)

By combining, you can pastiche the experience. In my opinion, that is 'writing what you know'. While it may not be as pure a form of it as writing an actual lived experience, it's the next best thing and, so long as it is done well, it is without dishonesty.

Now, it may be the case that this technique still results in mistakes. I am inclined to believe that those mistakes will, usually, be fairly trivial. If somehow they are not, that is a job hazard -- you can't be right all the time. The important thing is that we try.

Perhaps a better guideline than 'write what you know' is 'write what you find credible'?

Really an excellent post - and it points to developing empathy for our characters... to actually feel those emotions (to some degree - too much would leave us a mess) while we are writing.
 
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