Isn’t “Write What You Know” a misleading concept?

write what you know

 

One of the truisms of fiction writing is that an author should write what she knows.

On the surface that rule is pretty straight-forward.

If a person has grown up in the South, she knows that place better than any other, so she should set her novels in a southern locale with which she is familiar rather than writing about a place she only knows through travel brochures.

Doctors and lawyers should write about medicine and the law.

Teachers and school administrators should explore topics having to do with education.

And so forth.

But the rub comes when a writer attempts to drill into the core of the things she knows or believes she knows.

Take parents, for instance.

Each of us has a concept of what makes our parents tick.  After all we have spent years around them, observing how they conduct themselves, the jobs they do, the chores they choose to do around the house.

But what child really understands the inner workings of her parents’ psyches?

In my case, my father was a WWII vet who fought in the European theater of operations during some of the fiercest battles of the war.  He fought with General Patton in the Battle of the Bulge.  He marched into a German concentration camp as a liberator where he saw bodies of prisoners stacked like cords of wood.  He stepped into a gas chamber where he saw bloody footprints on the ceiling.

All that happened to him before I came along.

I knew him after those horrific events had taken a hammer to his soul and beaten it to a pulp.

Yet he returned to civilian life where he did the best he could to fit back into ordinary life.

Although I knew him, I didn’t know him.

When I write about him, am I writing what I know?

Or take the multiple cultures we brush up against every day regardless of where we live.

Different races, different nationalities, followers of various religious traditions, persons whose native tongue is not English.

We know them, but we don’t.

So, when it comes time to describe them in our books, how do we do it?

One way is to resort to drawing them as caricatures.

I’m afraid many of us take that route, often not out of spite, but in ignorance.

We deceive ourselves into believing that we know them.

The other route, the one that does not rely on caricature, is to delve more deeply into people’s lives, to come to know them, to allow them to educate us about the things that motivate them.

This is not the easy way, but it is the better way.

To write what we know we must do the hard work necessary to learn our subjects.

Any other approach is to fall into the trap of propaganda, the approach that relies on stereotypes and fear for its power, the approach that fosters shallowness and prevents the embrace of our common humanity.

Perhaps I can never truly know my neighbor, my fellow traveler, but I can know him better than I do now.

In a very real sense, when an author strives to write what he knows, he discovers  what he doesn’t know and makes a concerted effort to educate himself before he commits his thoughts to paper.

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  • Well said, the last sentence in particular.

  • I think the reason fiction is still around is that we can ‘know’ a fictional character better than real ones, and we use that information to come up with plausible reasons why real people might behave the way they do.

    Having the right information about how other people might behave, and why, is a survival trait – those who had it lived to have children. Life is full of moments when you have to make the right choice, so the more information you have, the likelier you will make it. For a while.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    As you know, Stephen, there are only three ways to make fiction sound real. Research. Research. Research. In good books, caricatures and stick figures aren’t allowed.

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