Monday, April 5, 2010

Rambling: Fiction and "Write What You Know"

So hopeful fiction writers keep getting advised to "write what you know".

OK. Sure. Fine. Sounds great. Certainly better than writing what I know absolutely nothing about.

But, really, what does it mean?

For example, I know about perfume. I'm not an expert, but I have some knowledge. But if I sit down to write, say, a murder mystery full of little nuggets of information about perfume, the novel is likely to look like exactly that - a delivery device for nuggets of information. Rather like those stilted children's stories where all of the events are designed to lead to the lesson that A Good Heart Is More Important Than Nice Shoes or Happiness Comes From Being Safe or Look Both Ways Before Crossing The Street. It's a vehicle, not a story.

So if I know perfume, what do I "know" in a way that matters for a story?


That was the first thought that came to me, when I considered this problem. Knowing about perfume means that I know about greed. Mindless acquisitiveness. Wanting things that you don't, the least little bit, need. Wanting them enough to consider giving up things that you do need.

So that got the ball rolling. The next thought was about the way that people can build politics and cultures and communities and passions around anything - any interest, or place, or idea.

And about the tension between artistry and the lowest common denominator and snobbery and standards and if and where they meet.

And about the role of impractical pleasure in life.

And probably a dozen other things.

So "what you know", by this theory, is what you know about people, even if it started with perfume or baseball or duck herding. That's what I'm going with. Maybe that was always obvious to everyone else, but it took me a little while.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I never really considered that old adage; I started writing things that were nonsense, because they were based on the nonsensical. Then I slowly realised that these was little more nonsensical than my life and the lives of those around me. I started to draw from reality, from experience, from the space i inhabited. I guess that boils down to writing what you know.

    That said, the first pay check I ever earned from writing was about a walking tour of Barcelona for a Spanish magazine. It was in the days before the interweb so I had two choices; go to Barcelona or bluff it. Time didn't allow the former, so I went with the latter choice. i visited the library, flicked through some books on Gaudi, and that was that.

    I think the "write what you know" thing is aimed at kids who start writing about sex/crime/war/dwarves without really understanding the subject. I think any adult (well, most adults) can keep reality in anything to a degree, if they work hard enough at it.

  2. The problem is you don't really know what you know until you start writing. And after awhile, it becomes obvious that what you know is very little indeed.

  3. Hey, TIG! Yep, I'd say that drawing nonsense from reality, if I understand you correctly, counts as writing what you know. And that it is likely to be kids that are most likely to think that they know what they don't know, and try to write about it.

    But I think that I do better if whatever I'm writing is grounded in some specific experience - some craziness of my own, some crazy person I know and feel that I understand - even if it's all wrapped up in purely fictional gingerbread.

    So did the magazine ever find out? :)

    Hiya, nothing profound! This is true, though sometimes, especially with characters, I find that I suddenly know them inside out.