Write What You Know?
One thing “new”1 writers often hear is “write what you know.” It’s told to us as a hard-and-fast Rule of Writing™ that Must Not Be Broken™. Or something.
“Class, write one thousand words by Friday.”
“But, Mrs. Teacher, what do we write?” ask the worried students.
“Just write about what you know, dear,” she says, a knowing smile on her face.
Well, sure. That’s easy. I could write about being an only child growing up in a small town in rural Alabama, going to a private school, getting together with my friends and riding bicycles all over town after school and during the summer. I could expound at great length upon being an only grandchild (on one side) or what it’s like to spend all day at the municipal swimming pool in chlorinated water, getting a sunburn, and then doing it all again for 90 straight days during the summer. I could wax poetic over what Halloween was like in the 1970s in small-town Alabama. I could go on for hours about computers and the Internet and all the books I read or the podcasts I listen to. Get me started on the wonders of the universe and science and learning for the sake of learning and you’ll have to physically restrain me to get me to stop.
But . . . I write science fiction, fantasy, horror, and urban fantasy. You know, faster than light travel, teleportation, magic, vampires, werewolves, Things That Go Bump in the Night™, aliens, zombies, alien zombies, alien werewolf vampire zombies going faster than light using magic to escape from killer robots from the future . . . like that.
I don’t know any of that. And that’s where that “rule” breaks down. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great rule. For beginners. Because if you know something, you’re passionate about it. I think experienced writers and teachers tell learners that so they’ll want to write about something and therefore spend the writing time it takes to get the million words of crap out so the good words can start spilling forth.2
But at some point, you have to start writing about what you don’t know. Can’t know. One of the first stories I ever completed was about a pregnant woman who started losing time every day. Do I know what it’s like to be a woman? Or pregnant? Or married? No, no, and no.
But here’s the thing. As you mature as a writer, you develop the ability to extrapolate.
I am an only child. I was supposed to be the first of three. But I was born and was apparently (according to my mother) such a horrible child (colic) that they decided one was plenty. I try *twitch* not to let that *twitch* bother me. I think I’m doing *twitch* quite well, actually. So does my therapist.3But I can imagine what it’s like to have a sibling. My father had three brothers and four sisters, and I’ve heard many, many tales of what life was like for them growing up with so many people around. My mother has a younger brother, and I’ve also heard tales of their mutual childhood.
Aside from that, I have friends I consider members of my family. I have a housemate. I have twenty first cousins on my father’s side. I used to babysit for my mother’s friend, who had a boy and girl six and seven years younger than me, respectively. So I can extrapolate from all that what it might be like to have a little brother or sister, older sibling, or twin. Do I get it perfect? Probably not. But there are as many different types of families as there are people, so I figure if I get it wrong, people will assume that’s just how it is in that family and move on. :)
Now, here’s the funny part. As I was writing this post over the course of a few hours on Sunday night, I had a sudden realization. In my current work in progress, which I’m calling Death Scene, I have a main character Nick Damon, who had a brother Jacob, but Jacob died while they were still young. Another character Javier Ellis, is an only child. As is Charlotte (Chuck) Norris. And Manuel Gutierrez. And Lena Saunders. And Monique Johnson. And Terence Yamato. And Derek Meads. And . . .
I have managed to write what I know without realizing I was doing it. Literally all my characters are only children, essentially. How did I let that happen?
Time to rethink a few things. :)
Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 109 prompt: Sibling(s).
- I’ve been writing one way or another since I was 11. So I’m hardly ‘new,’ but since I’m also not a professional writer until I sell my writing (which, granted, would be much more likely to happen if I submitted frequently), I use ‘new’ here in that sense.
- There is a well-known(?) rule of thumb that says a writer must write a million words of crap and get them out of her system before she gets to the good words. It’s an arbitrary number, sure, and if all you do is glurge words day after day with no attempt at improvement, you’re never going to get to the “good” ones.
- I actually don’t have a therapist, but the joke was too good to let pass . . . ;)