Myth takes in writing.

I’ve thought about writing this particular column for some time, but I thought it was presumptuous, maybe even hubris for a guy with one whole book published (and another one at the editors) to write about “how to write”. Then the delightful Sarah Hoyt wrote: “What You are is What You Know” and I thought well there goes that column. Sarah however, had other ideas, and since disappointing the woman who commands the Huns and Hoydens is, it seems, a risky proposition, here we go.
“Write what you know” Myth? Certainly, but is it also wisdom? Well, yes and no. Let’s reword it: Know, or learn, what you write about… THERE, that works. I went through a series of Non Science fiction/Fantasy books a while back. (yes I know, more proof that I’m not a REAL fan, I read other things as well) I had been turned on to them by my better half, and a recent major motion picture starring Tom Cruise…

Well the first one I read was a lot of fun, the second one I read was fun, the third one I read was the same book I had read the first two times… So I took a break from the series, but it’s SOOO highly reviewed that I thought I would give it another try. Then I picked up one of the newest ones. OH GODS what a mistake. I would have thrown it across the room, but I couldn’t remove it from my nook in such a way as to do so, and I’m not about to chuck my nook across the room. The guy that writes the series is a Brit, well, that in its self is not a down check, Arthur C Clarke and Chris Nuttall anyone? But, here’s the thing… The closer you get to modern times, or to something that a share of your audience actually knows something about, the better you need to be in your research! A couple of things this guy had done had bugged me before. Tell me a former MP could tell that the shotgun the bad guy was holding is a Mossberg, but he’s not sure of the model … UH DUDE, PLEASE BOUNCE YOUR STUFF OFF A GUN NUT, OR AT LEAST A VET! Many of his characters reactions and turns of phrase were weird… This time though he went “full potato”.

full potato

He got so many things wrong about the military etc that I literally got rid of the book, something I NEVER do. (it’s one of the rules: money flows to the author, guns come in to my possession, they don’t leave, books come in to my possession, they don’t leave unless stolen by friends, when the redhead is amendment, she’s right (even if she’s wrong) etc)

So, to the point. You can’t (as Sarah pointed out) just write what you know in the “I experienced all this stuff myself” sort of way, because unless you’ve had a lot more experiences than the average bear, (I have, and it’s not enough) it’s going to be a damn boring book. Besides as fiction and fantasy writers, which one of us knows what being a werewolf actually feels like? What about breaking FTL? Yeah, thought not. What you can know is how people would react to this sort of thing… and therein lies the story.
Your stories need to ‘ring true’. If it’s close to modern, and it’s about the military for instance, you need to talk to some vets, and read some books, and I’m not talking about the bullshit that the NYT says is “a brilliant expose on the horrors of modern war, and the evils of the military industrial complex”. Because here’s the thing: If you are writing about the military, your target audience is current and former troops. Yes really. Oh sure you’ll get non vets too, but the biggest sales will be vets. Insult them, piss them off, get the mind set wrong, and you’re going to bomb. Oh it might get you awards, the powdered and perfumed darlings of the literary set may stand and say “bravo” but you won’t get the most important award, the Benjamin. If you’re writing about cops, a good share of your fan base is going to be cops, cop families, and badge bunnies (don’t ask, or, do ask, but ply me with liquor first) Along with that, it’s got to at least make internal sense. The beauty of fantasy is that you don’t have to know the science as well as, oh say, Doc Travis, but it’s at least got to be sort of reasonable, or it’s going flying. Of course the further out in the time line you go, the more liberties you can take with how things work, without having science geeks screaming “OH FOR THE LOVE OF…COME ON!” Go far enough and you can pull off a lot of stuff that would otherwise cause the fan base to blow raspberries at you… Like say for instance the CO of the ship going on all the highly dangerous away missions. In the modern navy that concept is laughable. But put it 500 years in the future, and OK maybe.
If you’re not the science guy that Doc Travis is, then do a lot of your science off camera. The audience doesn’t need to know the intricacies of how the FTL drive works, unless that’s a critical plot point, and far better to do it off camera that to get it so wrong that your book gets frequent flier miles. One thing though that you have to know, is people, at least enough to get in other people’s heads. If your characters don’t ring true, it’s a problem.
So, write what you know? Well, sort of.


About morrigan508

A retired submarine sailor and former cop, author of the John Fisher Chronicles, as well as a contributing author of the Otherwhere Gazette.

4 comments on “Myth takes in writing.

  1. I’m going to take slight issue with part of what you said. If you write a story about the military or a veteran, a small part of your target audience is veterans. Most of the others are interested in the military or an action adventure.

    Today, with the military as downsized as it is, there are very few veterans on a percentage basis compared to what there was, oh, say forty years ago.

    But there are a lot of wargamers that like a good adventure story, and if they’re readers, they would be a part of your target audience.

    I have several friends from my days as an active swordmaker and active in the sword arts. A few of them have read the series you reference, and none of them had a problem with it. Most of them strongly recommended it to me. None of them are veterans.

    I haven’t read any of it myself, and now that you’ve said what you have about it, probably won’t.

    Outside of this very minor niggle, great article. As a writer, the first thing you are is a fan and a reader. In my view, the writing grows from what you enjoyed as a reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • the military is smaller than during oh say the second world war, but we’ve gone through a LOT of troops lately and almost all of them are readers. Bear in mind when I say military, vets count too. I may be a little biased due to location, but it seems that there’s a hell of a lot of one tour types around. Thanks for the compliment, and some of the series is OK, but damn repetitious, and because of my background (I ran a brig as my last duty station prior to retirement) boy he gets a lot wrong.


      • I apparently failed to get through what I was trying to. Its not that military folks and vets wouldn’t be part of your audience, its they’re not all of it.

        I have a nephew who wanted to join the marines a few years ago. But he had knee surgery while in high school, and couldn’t pass the physical. He used to play “Call of Duty” all the time. He and a lot of his friends like military gear, and military stories. There are a lot of people like him.

        However, he wouldn’t catch anything wrong about happenings in a brig, or how they were run. Watching “Fury”, he didn’t catch the lingo problems between the 40’s and now. Etc.

        As a co-author on a novella of the “Mongoliad” series, and on “Katabasis” {Book 4 of the Mongoliad}, I cringed at some of the stuff that went to publication. I’m a bit of a period nazi on some of this. Reading the reviews, half expecting to be ripped for some historical errors I was somewhat relieved that the problems that were spoken of weren’t the historical errors I was expecting.

        My point being, that only a few people with the exact knowledge will catch certain problems. Overwhelmingly, on a well written tome, most won’t.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve got to tell you. If I knew how my FTL drives worked, or the artificial gravity, or the “tunnel cannon”, or any of a thousand other gimmicks that appear in stories from time to time, I wouldn’t be writing SF. I’d be writing Nobel acceptance speeches.

    So better to do whatever you need for purposes of plot, and only that. The rest of it? Just leave it.

    On the military subject, I am former military but my own experience was very limited and kind of “off on the sidelines”. That’s where social media is such a godsend. I can “ping” my friends with a particular story problem, get some different perspectives by people who had different military experiences and get what I need to keep the story moving. And do all this in very close to real time.

    Of course for “military” you can substitute pretty much anything else where you need the human factor. Need an archaeological dig? You can look up procedures in books and websites. But having an online friend whose done one is a pearl beyond price. And so on.

    Liked by 1 person

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