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”.
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.