So, we’ve talked a few times about how important it is to write what you know, but in practical terms what does that mean? Can you only write about your profession? Can only policemen write crime fiction? Can only lawyers write legal drama? Certainly some people have turned a profession into a valuable writing career – Michael Crichton was a scientist before he was a writer for instance. However, there are many good writers who have not ‘worked’ in the medium that dominates their writing. And how does one ‘know’ fantasy? Must one be an inter-dimensional traveler to write fantasy? A time-traveler to write science fiction? Of course not. A concept that was odd and constraining now becomes ludicrous.
I was recently forwarded a comment: ‘You know you’re a writer when you’re about to pass out from pain and all you can think is at least now I can write something like this realistically now.’ This is the core of what it means to write what you know. Of course, sometimes it is necessary to take a best guess, and all authors utilize a large amount of creativity (especially in the field of speculative fiction), but at the core writing is about experience. A creative lawyer can write a better law drama than a creative barista because the lawyer knows the courtroom. However, experience is not limited to profession.
So, the title of this post is true. One time I threw a guy off a cliff. Actually it was more than once. When I was a child there was a dirt cliff near my house that was about fifty feet high (I guesstimate – like I said, I was a kid – so read fifty feet as really, really tall – probably somewhere between 25 and 75 ft). This cliff was completely overgrown and we used to jump off the cliff into the branches and make our way down to the ground Tarzan style. We also used to throw other kids off of this cliff (until one broke his arm for which we all got in a lot of trouble, and which I think I blamed on another kid in the group who’s name started with a D… or a B… something like that). For us this was mindless innocent fun, we loved jumping off of the cliff and we assumed that other people would as well. We never thought that anyone would get hurt, after all we never had. However, this is now an experience that I can draw on in my writing – the experience of throwing someone off a cliff. The resistance of the victim, the fear, etc.
In my life, I have also bee a rather malicious person and so I can combine that experience with malice and hatred with the previous experience of innocent fun to simulate the experience of murdering a man by throwing him off of a cliff. Everything you do is experience, and as I said: writing is all about experience. This does not mean that you should go out and murder someone, or set a building on fire, etc, etc, etc. However, if you want to be a writer then take a long, hard look at your life. Examine the kinds of experiences that you have to draw on, and then try to write something accordingly. You can always spice things up a little – unless you actually think that real trials are as tense as law drama (I promise… they’re generally not), but what you write should be based in what you’ve done, or at the very least in something that you have some experience with.