Write What You Know

(Pre-Note: I’m planning on doing a YouTube interview answering questions anyone has about writing, editing, or publishing and am currently taking questions to answer over in the NaNoWriMo forums. If you have any of your own, feel free to email me them [jesskdall(a)gmail.com] twitter me [@JessicaDall] or post a comment below).

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Anyway, with that note out of the way…

Yesterday, thanks to a LivingSocial voucher, I was brought along to a shooting range. While I’m not sure I was very good (I was told I was perhaps the most focused shooter at least…) I have now fired a gun (Glock 17). Other than thinking ‘Holy s**t, I’m holding a gun’ it got me to thinking of the old adage “Write What You Know.”

Now, if you’re a writer you probably have heard this saying before. If not, now you have. More than a few people have written articles about it (like here, and here) most outlining the fact that it’s much too easily misunderstood. There’s a reason we write fiction. Most of our real lives are pretty boring. I promise none of the stories I have written are about someone with a generally happy childhood, vanilla high school career, and who now spends most of her time working behind a computer. Sure, that might be a good set up for a book, but until aliens attack, or my generally happy relationship falls apart and sends me off on a three year tour of Europe trying to “find myself” there really isn’t a book there.

The other articles tell you that “Write What You Know” comes from a place telling you to use what you know in real life (your neighborhood, a hobby you know well…) in your writing. That’s something I fully support. Last night, I had a friend complaining to me about a character in a novel taking the train from Union Station in DC to Grand Central in New York. As someone who’s taken the train between DC and New York, I can tell you that’s just not possible. The train goes to Penn Station from DC, not Grand Central. If the author had ever taken that train, they would have known that.

Of course, we can’t be expected to know everything every one of our characters will ever do in a story. We’re all going to get something wrong. And we’re all going to have something published that is wrong because both we and our editors never thought it was wrong. So, we should use what we can from what we know, but then jump and write what we don’t when we can’t know.

So where’s the line?

Honestly, I don’t think there’s any one answer. It depends. If it’s something that can be found out in a simple google search. Do it. It takes five seconds on the Amtrak website to figure out what stations you can get to by train. Need to figure out what classes you can take at Harvard, find the course catalogue, look it up. With Google Street View it’s even possible to actually see what it looks like on University Avenue in St. Paul. Yes we sometimes assume we know things that we shouldn’t, but there is really no excuse to not look into things that you can when you don’t know personally. Especially if you’re writing about a controversial issue. For example, if you want to write about a mental disorder, which you don’t have, you can, but please, please, please actually do your research. You can talk to people who have the disorder, you can read blogs about real people, you can learn about it without having to know it. At least not personally.

Still, there really is nothing that can be firsthand experience. If there’s something important to your story that you have the ability to experience, go do it. I’ve never had many guns in my stories. There just have never been a reason for them to be. But if I had tried to write about them before, either I wouldn’t have been able to give any details (Um, “He shot the gun” Yeah…that works…) or I would have gotten them wrong. A big metal thing that shoots something out of it at 1110ft/sec? (Just looked that up, yep). I expected it to be heavy, and the recoil to try to knock me back. Ok, maybe not that extreme, but I expected to find it harder to hold it out and shoot. Honestly, the hardest parts for me were: 1) I couldn’t get the feel for when the trigger was going to set the gun off, and 2) Every time the shell casing flew out after I shot, it made me completely jump through myself (not the best thing when you’re trying to bring the barrel back to level quickly).

So, write what you know. Learn what you don’t know. And experience what is possible to know. The people who do know will thank you. And, hey, it can be really fun. (If you haven’t gotten to try it, learning how to shoot is a fun thing to get to learn).

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