1. Sean2112bd
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    Sean2112bd Member

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    Should you only write what you know?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Sean2112bd, Feb 5, 2011.

    I've heard the phrase "write what you know" several times. Should people only write what they know? What if someone wants to write about an actual place that he or she has never visited? Or what if someone wants to write historical fiction, but hasn't lived through that time period or has any connections with that culture (Shogun by James Clavell comes to mind). Wouldn't a better expression be "write what you have learned" since things that you don't know can be taught thus enabling someone to write about it. I mean, given the endless resources the internet has to offer it would seem that writing about a specific time or place is much easier, and you don't necessarily have to "know" it. Although it might be advantageous, I don't think "write what you know" is really an axiom that writers should follow to the extent of not trying at all.
     
  2. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Don't limit yourself to your own experiences. Write what you want.

    If you're trying to convey emotion, it'll be much more effective if you've experienced it, but anything can relate to other things.
     
  3. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm with Mallory. I've never really understood this rule. I suppose it means "if you're gonna write about quantum physics, you better at least be a physicist." Well, that seems pretty obvious to me.

    However, I'm pretty sure most subjects are fair game as long as you research and are imaginative.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've always had a broader interpretation of this. For example, I collect perfume. Obsessively. That means that, yes, I know about perfume, but I also know about:

    - Acquisitive obsessive greed, and sacrificing needs for wants, and the experience of desperately want want wanting something, getting it, and immediately turning your attention to the next thing that you want want want without even appreciating what you've gotten.
    - The joy of a common interest and common knowledge.
    - Heartfelt opinions and loves and furies about things so small that sane people wouldn't even understand them.
    - The way that communities form around knowledge and personalities and enthusiasms, irrespective of the usual links of family and friends and geography.
    - Snobbery and reverse snobbery and the endless debates about cost and value and appearance.
    - Obsessive, detailed pursuit of sensory experiences

    IMO, all of those things could apply to all sorts of plots and situations that have nothing to do with perfume. So that's where I think "write what you know" comes in--look at what you want to write about, and find something that, perhaps without even realizing it, you _do_ know about.

    ChickenFreak
     
  5. KrisDalpiaz
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    KrisDalpiaz New Member

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    Yes, you should write what you know. This is different than, and often confused with, writing what you've experienced. You don't need to experience something to write about it, you just need to have a level of subject knowledge comparable to the depth of the subject writing.
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    "Write what you know" is the kind of idiot-level advice that people give to non-writers so that they don't embarrass themselves the first time out. It's good advice, if you're not a writer and you don't want to make a fool of yourself. But for those of us who ARE writers, and who are unafraid of our own work, it's a useless bromide. Look at all the writers who made their careers on writing what they couldn't possibly know. For example, science fiction writers who can't know what it's like to visit Ceti Alpha 4, if there is such a planet. Jules Verne wrote the classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea without having ever been in a submarine.

    Of COURSE you can write what you don't know. How about modifying the statement to "Write what you love?"

    That works for me.
     
  7. twopounder
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    twopounder Member

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    I think the phrase should be "know what you write." Too many writers approach a subject without knowing anything about it. As an example, how many people have used the term "clip" with a pistol or other firearm? well, pistols don't use "clips" and neither do most firearms. They use magazines. But it has become common lingo to say clip. Not a big deal, get over it you say?

    Well, imagine if I wrote a whole story that way:

    Jack spun the seat in front of him, hurtling the Porshe through the tight corner. Its engines squealed as they struggled to grip the road. A woman walking her leash with a dog shook her fist and whispered at the driver from the side of the...

    Okay, I think you get the point.

    I'm not saying you need to be an expert on the subject, but it won't cost you much to do some research on the location, backdrop, tools, weapons, vehicles, military, computers, politics, etc involved in your story. The more real your story is, the more believable it becomes.
     
  8. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wonder how that came to be. I am no gun expert, know very little about them to be honest but even I know that a clip and a magazine are different.


    As for the phrase. The way I understand it is that if you are going to write about something, you should know about it. If you don't know much about firearms then you should do your research.

    If you don't know much about jungles and surviving in one and thats the focus of your story then you should do the research.

    If possible then its best to actually visit a similar location within your novel. Then you will have a far better grasp of what its like then what you might read about or what your told.

    To me the phrase is all about making sure to do your research. If you don't know it then either research it or don't write it.
     
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  9. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I write fantasy for this very reason I get to make it up :)
     
  10. Unit7
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    Unit7 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Cheater!

    I feel I should say more in this post and yet everything I had to say was in that one simple word.

    Well I guess I would be a cheater too. I love writing and reading fantasy.
     
  11. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    LOL well its true if I want my guns to use clips they can I just need to find a reason why they do or say they do. There is very little with Covesea Island I can't research with a quick look at Wikkipedia, as it doesn't have to be that accurate.

    With my paranormal detectives I made up the stone circle so I didn't have to be spot on accurate :)

    What it does do is allow me to concerntrate my efforts on the writing and storytelling instead of research that I would probably be tempted to infodump.

    It allows me to write all manner of things that not only do I not need to know about I can be pretty sure my readers have never experienced either.
     
  12. twopounder
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    twopounder Member

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    You could, but that's like calling swords dorfersmisnfers just to be different. Easier to just go with what people already know :)
     
  13. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    LOL spoilsport:p

    I had so much fun with my middle spy type story - I had nightvisionoscopes (kind of night vision telescopes), despotifier (cloaking device), spotification device (radar) - and a whole host of other things my Q type character (sort of an ogre) came up with.
     
  14. sprirj
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    sprirj Contributing Member

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    This little statement 'Write what you know' seems to have gone over everyones head except ChickenFreaks.

    Don't take the statement directly. For example 'I'm a guy in UK and I use the internet', yeah fun story if I take it literally :)

    It means to draw on knowledge, write to your strengths, the world, community, how people interact, goals, dreams, love, hate, war.

    That is the bigger picture of the statement.

    If you for example want to write about a man who cuts off his arm, you have to relate to it. You have to ask why? You draw on knowledge.
    No one would cut off their arm in their right mind, so either A) he is insane or B) he needs too.

    And it goes from there, that is the meaning of the statement. It means justify it, give it a motive, a way to relate to the reader. If you can't relate to it in someway, then no one else will. IMO;)
     
  15. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Its not that it went over my head, I get that bit we always draw from what we know to write.

    HOWEVER also think its a stupid statement, when applied to a fantasy writer. Fact is my imagination is what is doing the writing and I give it free reign. I can be pretty sure my readers have never turned into a falcon, swan or peacock, so I can make it up without being found out. Its a good chance my readers have never fired a retractable jing-ore bow, with magic flaming arrows, so whilst I can use some basic knowledge of what it takes to fire a bow, I can tweak it to fit my story. My gun can have a clip instead of a magazine - just like my cats can smile and wolves woof if I want (i actually kept the wolf more authentic but cats in my world smile). If I want to make my horses faster and more durable it makes sense in the context of my world.

    In my stories I am writing what I know - but I writing from what i know about a world I made up in the first place. I need to know my made up world inside out and back to front. It actually helps sometimes to forget what I have learned about the real world.

    Even with more real life stories anything I don't know I can find out about. Better slogan could be: KNOW WHAT YOU WRITE.
     
  16. jaywriting
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    jaywriting Member

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    I use a modified version of the maxim: "Write what you think you know".

    I make a lot of stuff up, but sometimes I realise I just don't understand the material well enough to do it justice. At that point I'll dig around the net for some research, or ask a friend who knows what they are talking about. If it is still not satisfying my credibility criteria I'll move on from that idea and do something else.
     
  17. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why limit yourself to what you know? Write what you want and learn what you have to in order to make it believable to the audience.
     
  18. KrisDalpiaz
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    KrisDalpiaz New Member

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    I think this is the same thing people mean when they say "Write what you know." If it isn't, it should be. The idea is to keep the story believable. It would be awfully hard to do so if you don't know a thing about the subject. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to write a story which includes brain surgery, but you'd better learn enough about it to make the story believable. Sure, there are a lot of examples of authors, perhaps even successful ones, mucking up details, but "successful" writing and good writing aren't one in the same.
     
  19. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^^^^I agree to a point. You wanna make it believable. I just dont think you really need to know as much as some would say to make that happen.
     
  20. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    Write what you know, that which you don't know but need to know - research.
     
  21. lost123
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    lost123 Senior Member

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    "write what you know" is a wrong phrase, you should write what you knew,imagined and learned. Because writing is about imagination and creativity.
     
  22. impure
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    impure Member

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    Write what you know, and if you don't know something; look it up.
    Writing what you know doesn't matter as long as the story is realistic to you.
     
  23. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Totally agree with you. Lots of great writers have written about people or situations or professions or life in countries they didnt know anything about to begin with, but they did their research and creativity and fantasy did the rest. I dont think this saying is meant to be taken literally but as a advice to do ones research to make it more believable and to make it come alive to the readers.
     

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