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Old 10-11-2012, 08:10 PM   #1
QofResh
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Interpret this proverb: Write what you know.

It is a classic piece of advice for prospective writers, yet it is a bit vague. How would you interpret this advice for people looking to break into print? How has it applied to you specifically?
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Old 10-11-2012, 08:46 PM   #2
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Don't make up a lot of crap and expect people to buy it.

If you have a specific expertise in something, use that to give your book realism. If you are writing about something you don't know about, do the damn research.

As an example: I know about horses. If I'm writing a scene with horses, I know exactly what the horse can do, how it moves, how it smells, how it will react in verious situations. I don't have to lecture the reader about horses, it's obvious.

On the other hand, I don't drive and know nothing about car engines. If I attempted to write a scene with a car engine, it's likely to be "he connected the shiny thing to the round thing and twiddled a knobbly thing". So my choice is either not writing scenes that involve more driving than "He ignored the red light as he raced after the grey car" or I can get an expert to supervise my technical car scenes.
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Old 10-11-2012, 09:01 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by EileenG View Post
Don't make up a lot of crap and expect people to buy it.

If you have a specific expertise in something, use that to give your book realism. If you are writing about something you don't know about, do the damn research.

As an example: I know about horses. If I'm writing a scene with horses, I know exactly what the horse can do, how it moves, how it smells, how it will react in verious situations. I don't have to lecture the reader about horses, it's obvious.

On the other hand, I don't drive and know nothing about car engines. If I attempted to write a scene with a car engine, it's likely to be "he connected the shiny thing to the round thing and twiddled a knobbly thing". So my choice is either not writing scenes that involve more driving than "He ignored the red light as he raced after the grey car" or I can get an expert to supervise my technical car scenes.
I really enjoyed this response. It seems to me then that writing what you know can also be writing your ignorance on a topic through the eyes of a character as ignorant about it as you are. In that case: ["He connected the shiny thing tothe round thing and twiddled a knobbly thing." Alyssa sighed; she was hopelessly lost.] a writer like you (or pretty much me too for as little as I know about what actually makes a car work) is writing what they know and adding a real genuiness to the scene. This is good stuff. Thank you for the teaching!!!!
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Old 10-11-2012, 11:19 PM   #4
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I think it goes deeper than knowledge about how a car is built or the proper spoon to use at a dinner party. It means to get in touch with your own feelings about how to react to a stimulus as opposed to a stock response. I forget where I read it but I remember reading that Shakespeare probably never committed a murder but he understood the darker emotions (rage, hate, etc.) that could lead to someone actually killing another, and he used that to build his characters. A good example of that is Hamlet in the play of the same name. He learns that someone has murdered his father which makes him wish for revenge on the murderer, but at the same time he experiences self-doubt and is indecisive about how to proceed. He becomes so disturbed by his own inner conflicts of 'protect the family' vs. 'avenge the murder of a family member' that he even considers suicide as a method of dealing with it (i.e. his "To be or not to be" speech). Shakespeare knew the conflicts to which the human soul is victim and used that knowledge to create a work of art. He could have just had Hamlet sneak up on his uncle (the murderer) and avenge the death, or accuse him of it in the throne room directly as many might do in that position, but instead he found a balance between that works better than either alone. He wrote what he knew in the greatest sense of the meaning.
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Old 10-13-2012, 08:32 AM   #5
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Two famous examples are Stephen King and John Irving*, whose settings are usually places with which both authors are very familiar. Their books are full of details that come from intimate knowledge of the people and environment of those places (New England, Vienna (Austria), etc.). As someone that has never been to most of the places in those stories I don't know if they are truly authentic, but they feel authentic, and generally that feeling comes through best if it comes from a writer's own experience.

The other side of the coin is not to get too carried away with showing what you know - let it come through naturally, don't try to prove it, don't preach. ... And, sometimes, intimate knowledge is not needed or is out of place. Sometimes a story, or parts of a story, are simply not about those sorts of intimate details. But don't let this fool you. In such cases the advice might become: don't write what you don't know. In other words: Don't make up details for filler, if the details are necessary then follow EileenG's advice and "do the damn research", but if the details aren't necessary then say nothing.

And a +1 for crich70's post - another aspect from this same proverb/advice/guide. Write your characters from your own heart and experience - without actually creating characters based on real people, use what you see in them, and see in yourself, but don't create clones.

Of course, "writing what you know" can get a little less obvious when applied to fantasy. In such cases you might extend this proverb to mean: keep enhancing your fantasy in your mind (and/or in your own notes) until you really do know the setting and characters so that this knowledge with come through in your writing.

Disclaimer: This is "advice" from someone not yet published (self or otherwise), it is based mainly on what I've read rather than what I've written. I've yet to have others see whether I've managed to take such advice into my own writing.


* I think Irving sometimes takes this too far, some of his books get rather repetitive because his characters and places (at least partly) repeat (without being a related story). In his later books even the author-characters end up creating very close emulations of their own "reality", often to the point of demonstrating little imagination (which to me doesn't always seem credible, or not credibly presented in the books).
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Old 10-14-2012, 07:55 AM   #6
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I agree with all of the above. With non-fiction you obviously wouldn't write about something you know nothing about or have no interest in - having said that people have made money from doing just that.

With fiction I think there is more of an emotional aspect about, as mentioned by other posters, a lot of fiction writing is about your own feelings. For example: I wouldn't write about relationships or sex if I hadn't experienced it.

I think the Shakespeare quote: "to thine own self be true" is better.
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Old 10-14-2012, 12:56 PM   #7
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I think "know what you write" would be a better phrasing. People write books about the Civil War, but they were not there, they have no experience of it. But people can learn, and create an accurate interpretation.

Writing about what you have direct experience can be tricky. You generally have to step out of your own experience, a worms-eye view isn't a big picture view.
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Old 10-14-2012, 01:06 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gmw View Post
Two famous examples are Stephen King and John Irving*,

<snip>

* I think Irving sometimes takes this too far, ...
That's the first time I've seen a footnote in an Internet forum :-)

Yes, Irving must know SOMETHING beyond college wrestling, but he keeps it to himself.
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Old 10-14-2012, 01:13 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by EileenG View Post
Don't make up a lot of crap and expect people to buy it.
Unless it's "Harry Potter" or "50 Shades" ? :-)

Continue your education by finding the rebuttal to that.
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Old 10-14-2012, 10:17 PM   #10
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What is forgotten sometimes is that with only a little study, you may know more about a subject than your readers, though the subject might have been foreign to you at the beginning.
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Old 10-14-2012, 11:09 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by QofResh View Post
It is a classic piece of advice for prospective writers, yet it is a bit vague. How would you interpret this advice for people looking to break into print? How has it applied to you specifically?
Expand on it.

Only write about what you know about.

I find it so frustrating when an author clearly does not understand something (but writes as a supposed "expert") that I won't finish the book.

For instance, an automatic revolver. (Yes I know about the Webley-Fosbery but the author didn't.) A shotgun bullet. Scuba divers breathing oxygen. Gelignite being exploded by shooting it. Parachutes that open when jumping off a twenty story building. People in a matter of seconds breaking into and hot-wiring a car that has an engine immobiliser as standard equipment. (A modern Porsche.) A classic was a writer who wrote spy story where the protagonist attached a magnetic mine to a well know Presidential yacht. The yacht in question was made of wood. The same author had a protagonist using Scuba equipment thirty years before it was invented. Another had WW1 soldiers using walkie-talkies.

I could give examples all day of people writing about things that they don't anything about. Far too many writers do no research at all.
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Old 10-15-2012, 10:23 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by exaltedwombat View Post
Unless it's "Harry Potter" or "50 Shades" ? :-)

Continue your education by finding the rebuttal to that.
I've never seen anyone claim about Harry Potter "Schools of magic don't work like that!" And 50 Shades is sex fantasy, which has never had that much to do with reality.
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Old 10-15-2012, 10:24 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gmw View Post
Two famous examples are Stephen King and John Irving*, whose settings are usually places with which both authors are very familiar.
And of course Dick Francis, who for many many years stuck to the hitherto under-appreciated horse-racing-related-crime-fiction category. When he did eventually branch out into e.g. wine-retailing-related-crime-fiction he made a point of researching things thoroughly enough to avoid embarrassing himself.

And he still generally worked in some peripheral horses, and usually had the primary location in a town with a racecourse. Partly because that was the kind of place/lifestyle/people he knew best, and partly because his core readership obviously appreciated a bit of horsyness with their crime.

Which also brings up the point that if you know a lot about something people find interesting, and you can write well about it, it's an excellent way of connecting with an audience.
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Old 10-15-2012, 03:36 PM   #14
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As for Stephen King, I was on business trip late 2000 deep behind Boston MA; and when we shuttled small roads with a rental car, surrounded by local autumn, suddenly it flashed in my mind 'There be witches?' and I asked automatically my colleague if he had read Stephen King. I really don't know if New England is different but it felt something I had read/seen already.

As for writing about absolute professions, it sometimes feels odd to see true people who will take their experience with them and at the same time realize that I will never write about that with any depth, how ever I try to research.
Say, I like old aircraft and have a reasonable amount of WWII aerial warfare books and talked with some veterans about subject but I never will capture into text the true moment in 3-D airspace when 'hours and hours of boredom punctuated into seconds of sheer terror'(whoever that wrote).
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Old 10-15-2012, 04:03 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by QuantumIguana View Post
I think "know what you write" would be a better phrasing.
I agree. "Write what you know" is needlessly limiting.
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