So…One Time I Threw a Guy Off a Cliff: The Practical Meaning of Writing What You Know

You get the idea.

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.

Yes, because all lawyers look like this...

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.

Write What You… Part One: Write What You Know

Seriously, if you stick to what you know, everything will be easier.

If you’ve been writing for very long you’ve probably heard this phrase.  We all hear it, ninety percent of us choose to ignore it, and then we learn why we heard it in the first place.  I was part of that ninety percent.  I’d love to say that I wasn’t.  I like to be different, to stand out, but in this – I was right in the middle of the crowd.  There is a reason that people will tell you to write what you know, and I’ll get to that, but let me start off with a story.

It was several years ago, shortly after I started to get serious about my writing, that I decided it was a good idea to write a fantasy, horror, western.  I came up with a few really great characters, and a plot that was strong, yet intricate.  The fantasy part I was solid on – I write fantasy, always have.  The horror part I was also solid on; I even did a little bit of research about monsters from the American southwest.  However, the western part I was not solid on.  By fifty pages into the story it was clear to me, and everyone who read the short lived piece, that I had never lived in the American west, and that I had little interest in the historic American west.  I just made stuff up, I didn’t care enough about the ‘western’ part of fantasy, horror, western, to do the research that needed to be done, and the project quickly died.  That was when I learned to write what I know.

Hit the books people!

I said I would get to the reason that people tell you to write what you know, so here it is.  If you don’t know much about your topic, then it shows.  It distorts, or even destroys, the reality of your world – and this leads to readers who don’t bother to finish your book.  Not knowing much about your topic also makes the writing much more difficult.  I can make up stuff about living in the American Midwest, but the more I make up, the less confident I am in what I’m writing.  The more I make up, the more likely it is that I will get something important wrong.  For instance, did you know that there is abundant plant growth in the Sahara?  When we think of the Sahara we think of unending sand dunes.  However, while this is a part of the Sahara – dry, desolate landscape actually makes up only a small portion of the area that we refer to as the Sahara Desert.  There are also scrub lands, and even forests in the Sahara.  Something that most of us wouldn’t have considered if we were writing about the area.

If you don't know, then you can learn.

Now you might know a lot, and you can always learn more.  If you want to write a western, but know nothing about the American west then you can do some research.  Better yet, you can move out to Nevada and do your research there. You can always find ways to learn about most anything that you really want to write about.  However, if you don’t care enough to learn, then you won’t write a very good story.  It really is that simple.  For instance, my novel Among the Neshelim takes place in a desert.  I have never lived in a desert like the one that I describe in the novel.  However, I did a lot of research about the kinds of plants, animals, insects, people, and cultures that thrive in deserts.  Then I did even more research about the way deserts work.  Even then I got things wrong, but I asked a number of people to read the book and point out any problems before it was published.

If you stick to writing about what you are already familiar with, then you probably won’t write much – most of us have fairly limited experiences.  However, if you are willing to broaden your horizons for the sake of you’re writing, to do a little leg work to find out if what you’re writing is even remotely realistic, then you can accomplish some pretty great things.