It’s a gate. It’s a place to start, whether you’re describing a character or a place or an action. And you know more than you think.
Especially if you write science fiction or fantasy. Because then you’re free to make up the things you know from whole cloth in a few spots, maybe many. That’s a privilege other genres don’t have like we get in SFFPHM (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Magical realism). Other writers might make up a town or something, but their worlds are expected to act totally like the real world.
Settings aside, writing what you know also doesn’t mean every character has to be a writer or a retail person or a middle manager or whatever variety of things it might be that you do with your lifetime. Doesn’t mean all your aliens need to know what it’s like to poop or vomit. Doesn’t mean that your orcs need to be the orcs you know from all those movies with the really short dudes and a jewelry fetish.
Write what you know is great for writing the human bit of your story, though it’s a damn good thing to remember that if you’re writing about a culture or subculture you’re not familiar with, it’s best to consult members of that culture. Unless it’s elves. You’re not going to find any real elves to consult about your fictional ones, I’m afraid. HOWEVER that said if you’re going to base your elves’ culture strongly on the culture of southern Spain, you’d better be familiar with southern Spain in some significant way.
’nuff said. I’ve already harped on that enough and I hope you were listening.
Write what you know means the practical simple things around you, sure. Do use your memories, your pain, your joy, things that happened to you, places and people you’ve met (though tread lightly when writing a person who’s close to you lest ye complicate yer relationship).
Use the things that made you grieve. Use the things that made you weep with joy. You can choose not to reveal that those things came from within yourself if that’s what you want or need to do. Do use your writerly skills to file the serial numbers off them.
Write things you know you can feel. Because feeling (Hemingway would say, did say, bleeding) on the page speaks to readers. It can reach into your readers’ hearts where mere skill can only titillate their minds.
There are plenty of successful authors who do the latter. But the stories that do the former are remembered. They change minds and sometimes lives.
Don’t think it’s easy, though. No author succeeds at that every time. In fact, I think it’s an ideal that is rarely reached.
Do reach for it.
In my last post, EAT SCIENCE FICTION (link opens in new tab), I discussed the role of food in fiction, especially science fiction. I focused on the social element of eating meals and the way food and smells of food can evoke memories and feelings in us and in our readers when we include food in our fiction.
There’s another important aspect of food in fiction, too. One that’s very important to the writer. Food is a good element to use to evoke and to flesh out characters and settings. Just as describing the warm kitchen-filling smell of a hot and gooey baked macaroni and cheese can evoke cozy feelings of family and friendship in your readers, it can also be the touch that nails down a character’s nurturing trait (who doesn’t feel cared for with a slab of baked macaroni and cheese set before them?) or makes the scene of a family get-together feel real.
Think about the role that food plays in real life settings. If we travel to Maine, we look for a lobster roll. In New Orleans, you have to try the jambalaya, the beignets, seek out an oyster po’boy. A trip to Chicago calls for a deep dish pizza, or at least a Chicago dog. If you traveled abroad, wouldn’t you seek out the local cuisines? Or maybe you’re someone who craves a reminder of home in a strange land, and in the middle of Beijing you’d seek out a handy McDonalds. Foods are part of places for us, and how we relate to them says something about us as people. Consider that last example, an American in Beijing. The McDonalds seeker might be prone to homesickness, might be timid in the face of the different, or might be stuck on notions of cultural superiority, thinking that an American burger must be better than whatever these different people think is good food.
Your story and dialogue (internal and external) sort out those differences in character traits. Food can be a good way to introduce or emphasize them. Same goes with settings. Maybe your story is set in Chicago. You name the city. Maybe the action touches on the Loop, Lake Michigan and Navy Pier, the river running through the middle of the city, the tall buildings, the traffic, the sprawling suburbs, the harsh consonants of the natives, the snowy winters. Great! All of that says Chicago. Fiction is about details, and the details can make the difference between a good story and a great, engaging story. If your Chesapeake Bay native bemoans the difficulty of finding fresh soft shell crab in Chicago, that can be a valuable detail that makes that character live for the reader. And if you’re writing SciFi, maybe your Earthling character misses cheesy, crusty deep dish pizza on a world full of carnivores. Maybe, like in Niven’s Ringworld books, your carnivores complain a bit about having to microwave their meat to make it blood-warm, instead of consuming it still living. Think of the way that the differences between klingons and Federation humans are outlined by a scene where the humans are offered klingon delicacies. We know they’re different—just look at those foreheads and costumes. But the food really drives the differences home, doesn’t it? As another example, I’m also reminded of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, in which noodles eaten with chopsticks become food shorthand for ‘look at all of the Japanese and Chinese influence going on around this place, huh?’ It’s hardly the only detail that says that, but it’s a good one, and it delivers its message well when it appears. Often, it also says ‘these guys are pretty poor, they end up eating cheap noodles a lot.’ Food is a complex thing; it can deliver multiple messages simultaneously.
I’m not saying there has to be food involved in a story to define your characters and settings; good stories have been written in which food makes no appearance at all, and more of them will appear in the future. I’m just saying, food is a good tool to have in your writing toolbox.
So, I’ve been tinkering with this Flowers of Dawn story. So far, a diplomat on leave following the death of her spouse has been befriended by an alien she’s previously only interacted with professionally. The alien accompanies her to the graveyard. She leaves a stone. The alien leaves a… well, a green bean-thing. I won’t go into what happens next, because I can’t swear it won’t change in editing.
But I’m not writing this to get into the plot. I’m writing this because, as I was writing, I found myself thinking about my protagonist. We’re so different. Man, I hope I’m writing her well. I mean, she’s human and I’m human, so we definitely have some common ground. She’s definitely a product of Western culture, and so am I. Okay, that’s good.
I’m definitely heading down diversity way in writing her, though. I’m an atheist Caucasian straight male writer and, for the second time in my life, student. I’ve never been an aspiring career guy. And I’m writing a bereaved Jewish lesbian career diplomat.
Writing someone very culturally different than myself is a bit of a challenge. Writing an alien is easy, I can just make it up as I go along. But writing a very different human… well, that’s more challenging ground. I’m not so worried about an alien showing up and saying I wrote it all wrong. In fact, that would be awesome, I’d love to meet an alien in person. At least, I would so long as it wasn’t one of the world-conquering humanity-enslaving types. But I am a little concerned that when I publish this story, a Jewish lesbian career diplomat might just stop by to tell me I’m full of shit.
Oh, well. At least with her being a diplomat, I can pretty much count on her doing it politely.
- Discovery of Alien Life… What would happen? (diaryofdennis.com)
- Where is the creativity? (meritaking.com)
- Rule W: Write what you know and write only the stories you can write (garridon.wordpress.com)
- Writing my life : Storytelling trauma (dorasnow.wordpress.com)