Monday, April 15, 2013

Writing what you know

When I was a young(er) writer, I always found the notion of "Write what you know" to be discouraging and stupid.  If I can only write about what I know, then it's going to be a pretty boring book -- yes, it'll be full of Star Trek fandom trivia, maybe a good chocolate chip cookie recipe or two, but not much beyond that.  And if you can only write what you know, then how do genres like science fiction exist?  And should I be scared if I meet an author of murder mysteries?

Then, a few years ago, it clicked.  You can write in any setting you want, with any characters you want, and with any plot you want, but if you allow elements of what you know to shine through, then you attain a certain authenticity and validity.

In my upcoming novel, Autumn Fire, an m/m erotic romance, there are a lot of things in there that I haven't personally experienced.  Exactly what I know first-hand and what I don't, will remain a secret, but I can tell you that a lot of the dirtier things are straight from my imagination.  Like, an anonymous encounter in a public washroom in a university library.  I've never done that.  Seriously.  So how do I write what I know when I write about something foreign to me?

Well, start with a similar situation.  Have you met someone new in a weird location?  Think of a blind date that you meet in some bizarre art gallery.  You get that heady rush of blood pounding in your ears, your heart flutters, your attention dances all over the place until the person you're there to meet walks in.  Then your attention zooms in on that person and the weirdness of the location becomes more of an afterthought.  And then, if you've ever had sex, you can write a sex scene in a crazy place.

I also dabble in science fiction.  A lot of it is based on politics and class struggles, something I have no personal experience with -- but I study equality in university and have a history of studying various global human rights and geopolitical issues.  So, I can then take pieces of what I know, throw it into something fantastical I made up, and voila -- I've got an out-there sci-fi story with the authenticity of writing what I know.  (Or, in my first example, I've got a steamy sex scene that is something I'd totally never do, yet it rings of authenticity.)

It was a long and hard lesson to learn, but now that I've got it, it makes perfect sense.  And, really, knowing that made writing this easier.  ;)

Cameron D James


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

How do you know it "rings off' or rings true?

We write what we know subconsciously.

linda_rettstatt said...

I believe in 'write what you know, but then research the rest'. I agree that the concept of writing only what you know seems crippling and boring. That's where research comes in.