1. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Write what you know" dilemma

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by w176, Aug 19, 2010.

    "Write what you know" can be a fantastic advice at times. But also be limited.

    Fantastic literature has been written both by people writing what they know and have personal experience of, and fantastic literature have been written by people dong the opposite though history.

    Elif Shafak fantastic talks on TED the subject make an argument of the point of not being limited to write what you know. In her case again and again running into the expectation that she should write about Muslim women and Muslim women issues.And the danger of be expected to write just what you know.
    That the nice advice "write what you know" can become a border, rather then making literature a bridge between people.

    I find this dilemma, this two edge knife interesting, since we all seen the examples when people writing not what they know become stupid and bar literature as best, or creating prejudice or distance between people at worst.

    How do you deal with the balance of writing what you know, and writing whatever you feel like writing?
     
  2. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I use research, read other books etc. And find readers who can assist me. I have no issues with using other peoples ideas and letting them help me. Some of my favourite comedians function that way.

    My first novel I wrote from the perspective of a 17 year old boy, I don't really know how to be one. My readers have really helped and now I seem to manage to get him past teen boys:)

    My second novel I am being a gay man lol so I have a collection of gay friends helping. I also write from the perspective of being a bird - I am getting better at that, I just studied the chracteristics of each bird.

    I am a huge fan of meditating to bring ideas to me and visualising things. I use youtube a lot.

    Also you said you had an acting background. I did a lot of acting as a child and I find that helps me get inside the story no matter what it is.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Write what you know has much more to do with emotional life experience than specific scenarios. It also has to do with passion. When you write about subject matter you have immersed yourself in, you probably have a greater depth of knowledge to share, and the passion you feel is contagious as well.

    But obviously, a writer has to stretch beyond his or her life experiences. For example, the writer will have to know enough about the opposite sex to write convincing and appealing characters.

    That's where the flip side of the coin matters: Know what you write. Do as much research as you can, or at least as much as you need. Whenever possible, engage real, knowledgeable people in conversation for your research. It may not be as easy as hopping on board the search engine train, or spending an afternoon in the stacks in a library, but you will acquire insights and subjective tidbits you won't gain any other way.
     
  4. Sang Hee
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    Sang Hee Contributing Member

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    I like writing about things I don't know too because I write fiction. That pretty much justifies everything, the world of books doesn't have to correspond with the real one. I'm free. If you wanna write some real life stories I'd say you have to roll with writing what you know (not necessarily experienced).
     
  5. stubeard
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    stubeard Active Member

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    What do you mean by "what you know". What does it mean to "know" something?

    You have to know what you're writing about or you literally won't be able to put one sentence after another.

    However, the idea that this phrase means you should only write things directly related to your life experiences is complete nonsense. For example, it is said that civilians should not write about a soldier's life because "they weren't there, man!" But with correct and thorough research, you CAN basically be there (perhaps even more so than a veteran, because memories distort the truth).
     
  6. Aconite
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    Aconite Senior Member

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    I'll echo Cogito on the emotions bit. Good, convincing emotions sell anything; bad emotions sell nothing.

    This may be a bit of a hack approach, but it works for me: I toss a dose of what I know into the story. For instance, in the piece on which I'm currently working, it's set in 1970s South America (hint: not a good time). I studied human rights law down there, so I am comfortable with the setting, despite being an American born in 1981. I would be less comfortable writing about Antarctica in 2010, having never been there.

    Additionally, I work in what I know. I grew up listening to a bunch of '70s musicians (Costello to the Clash to Zevon to George Clinton), so I work in what I know about the pop culture through that and through movies (pre Star Wars, the '70s was a great decade for film [not that Star Wars was a bad film, just that it opened the door for SFX at the expense of story.])

    My main character in the story grew up in Albany, where I currently live and where I grew up nearby. So his memories have weight they may not have if he had been born in Miami, where he is currently from -- because I've never been to Miami.

    There are other pieces that I use from real world what I know, but that's a decent sample. I find that using those bits makes the characters feel real even if they are totally different from you. Obviously, that's harder to do in fantasy and scifi, but it seems to work well in 'writing what you know' in the historical fiction realm, for an era you have not lived through.
     
  7. stubeard
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    stubeard Active Member

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    You're not saying Star Wars itself was SFX over story, are you?
     
  8. Aconite
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    Aconite Senior Member

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    Not at all--I can misappropriate Joseph Campbell left and right to tell how effective a story it was. ;) But it created a monster where dozens of films a year began to be released that relied on SFX as seen in Star Wars without realizing an ounce of the story that lay behind those effects. It also changed film as a medium.

    I am painting with an extremely broad brush, but I think it is a fair statement that the early '70s focused a whole lot on personal, individual narratives in film, and the late '70s and '80s... didn't. Film became much more external, as opposed to internal, and while there are still gems to be found (a good dozen or so films each year are always worth seeing), it's a very different medium than it was 40 years ago, and less to my personal preferences.
     
  9. erik martin
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    erik martin Contributing Member

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    Star Wars debate--Star Wars, like most things, was ripped off, or 'inspired' if you prefer, by the Japanese, Toshiro Mifune flick 'The Hidden Fortress.'

    I disagree that SFX came to dominate film because of Star Wars. It would have happened, whether Star Wars was there to be first or not. Especially with the advent of the computer. Today's SFX make Star Wars effects look primative.

    But here we are staring from the post--a writer has to sound like what they are writing about is something they know well. I won't get into esoteric debates about whether or not one can truly know anything. On a non-philosophical plane we all know lots of things. If we write fiction, we are going to go beyond what we know fairly quickly (Many times, some might stick solely to what they know--I don't know.) and have to fake it. Faking it, doesn't mean just making it up and risk one's writing having that ring of insincerity. Faking it just means doing some research and learning the topic enough to write about it.

    Even fantasy and SF need to sound true. What you know is much more than the nuts and bolts of a subject--it's more the feelings and sensations that accompany the nuts and bolts. (Cog, I believe you said something to that effect.) Without that, all I'm writing is an instruction manual.
     
  10. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    The story template used for Star Wars was probably abused more than the SFX stuff. With every other Hollywood movie since then you can use a stop watch to perfectly predict what type of event is going to come next in the story. When I watched Avatar I had a constant feeling I had seen the movie before...
     
  11. Victorian girl
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    Victorian girl Member

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    I agree. Reaseach can always be done for the senorios that the characters find themselves in. Of course if I were to write a story about say a pilot or a butcher, then it would certainly help to know what that job entails but I don`t think it`s essential to have that knowledge as soon as you start your story as long as you are willing to research its practicalities as and when they are needed for your story development. In a way that`s what makes writing interesting, delving into and finding out new things that make the world go round.

    I do also feel that the more life experience you have the easier it is to emphasise with your characters, but again I agree with Cogito, thats is mostly to do with the enotional side of things.
     
  12. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've never felt there is a conflict between them. I define "what I know" as "what I can vividly imagine", so naturally, it is what is most enjoyable to write about.

    EDIT: Or rather, "what I can vividly and accurately imagine".
     
  13. Shinn
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    Shinn Banned

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    I use tons of research and I've spent more than enough time researching British Army weapons, equipment and armored vehicles for use in my story.
     
  14. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, 'what you know' can be amazingly broadened by research. It's still difficult getting cultural matters about another country right, though. In 'Memoirs of a Geisha' Arthur Golden did a pretty good job, and he spent ages on research, although there are still things he apparently got wrong. I'm not keen on books about Muslim women, unless they are actually written by--Muslim women. They always ring so fake.
     
  15. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think a healthy writer should always write what he or she is most experienced with, but I also think that research is necessary and called for at times. And it is very limiting not to do so.

    I, for one, am always soaking in the lifestyles and conflicts around me, but I also do comprehensive research on the lives of my characters. They are people from 200 years ago, and I find that a good way to understand their culture is to read their diaries, newspapers of the time, and any primary sources.
    So, fifty fifty or more or less. This is sometimes the proper way for writers, but not all.
     
  16. stubeard
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    stubeard Active Member

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    (I'm assuming you've seen Hidden Fortress so I'll take it that you have forgotten it.) The only things borrowed from Hidden Fortress was the rescuing of a princess and the story being told from the point of view of two slave/servant characters. There's tons of stories like that.

    P.S. Sorry that sounded a bit rude. The bit in brackets was an attempt to avoid accusing you of making a judgement without actually seeing the Japanese film. I didn't mean it to sound rude.
     
  17. erik martin
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    erik martin Contributing Member

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    No offense taken, it's been about twenty years since I've watched fortress, but it is fairly widely acknowledged that it was an inspiration for Lucas. It's also not really the point of the thread. I apologize for getting sidetracked, so if you would like to tell me why it has nothing to do with Star Wars, PM me.
     
  18. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that what you know goes beyond the specific situation that produced what you know.

    That is:

    I know perfume, and I know that the best jasmine comes from Grasse and I know that the smell of clothes detergent is the smell of white musk and I know that hardly any sandalwood perfume actually contains sandalwood oil and blah blah blah.

    While some of this may be useful for writing, I don't feel that it's the most important part of what I "know" as a result of collecting and talking about perfume. That experience teaches me about other things that are relevant to a broader body of work. Like the determined collector's greed for things that they don't really need, and the politics that are associated with _anything_, even something as simple as perfume. And the way that people see themselves and the way that they want others to see them, and the way that people feel about matters of taste. All of these are dicussed in the context of perfume, but the knowledge of people that results doesn't have to refer back to the perfume.

    So the person who "knows" being a Muslim woman may therefore know things about being an insider, and an outsider, and perhaps about being regarded as an inferior, and perhaps about the experience of rebelling aginst identification as an inferior. None of that has to actually refer back to being a Muslim woman.

    ChickenFreak
     
  19. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    This is another one of those "HeinleinFan is feeling lame and not writerful. So she's going to write an advice rant instead of Blin's story."

    ... Yeah. Nobody's perfect. It's this or a nap. I hate summer heat. Seriously, any place that gets hotter than 100 degrees Fahrenheit is just eeevil.

    So, How do you deal with the balance of writing what you know, and writing whatever you feel like writing?

    Expand What You Know
    There are four ways to do this which come to mind. You can live it, read it, talk to someone who did it, or imagine it.

    1) Living it. This means being a little adventurous. It also means being observant, both for the sensory details like the peach tone of a sunset or the glitter of snowflakes on a mountain trail, and the "holy crap, that is so classically this" moments which occur. Example: Whitewater rafting may be a touch of spray like the ghost of a kiss, sudden jerks and sore knuckles from gripping the paddle. It is also the corny jokes told by the guide, the instant teamwork that appears when a kid is lost overboard, the thrill of maneuvering as one around rocks that really don't care whether they cleave water or your flesh. Hunting is not just the weight of the rifle in your hands, or the cool refreshing water you drink on the dusty trail, but the quiet moments sitting on a rock by a tangle of wild grapes and blackberries, enjoying the shade and nodding respectfully at the rabbit by the roadside -- the rabbit who knows that you can't shoot, because it's a road and the best hunters are positively rabid about following safety rules. So you watch it hop away and check the safety's on and eat another grape, and that's as much "hunting" as actually sharing fried coney with your family that night.

    2) Read it. If you're writing about war, read soldier's memoirs. If you're writing about doctors, there's the James Herriot stories and The Making of a Surgeon and To Be a Surgeon and M*A*S*H. Read fiction and nonfiction -- nonfiction because it will have the touch of someone who lived it, and fiction because it can show you new ways characters can react. There is frequently a grain of truth in the wildest fiction, and if you read both -- especially fiction written by someone who did a lot of research, or who lived through vaguely similar experiences -- then you'll gain insight into what they thought was most iconic and important.

    3) Talk to people who did it. Whether "it" is organic chemistry, make-do veterinary work in Mexico, starting a business, hallucinating from lack of sleep, taking a full course load as a college student while fighting off cancer, breaking onto a military base, running 80 miles in 3 days while injured and being hotly pursued by enemy soldiers, surviving a jilted ex's knife attack ... I actually do know people who have done all those things. (The "breaking onto a military base" was a security guy's job; they had to see how alert the guards were.) The lesson here is that people are very interesting, and if you talk to them, they'll tell you the things they've been through that were neat to them, meaning the things that are so unusual or so cool or so scary that they stick out.

    4) Imagine. Okay, we don't have dragons and we don't have fire magic. But we do have elephants, and we do have Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and we have magicians who work with fire and firefighters who live and work with fire. So we have sources to draw on, even if we're making up a whole new world.

    A lot of writing well is knowing the details to put in. Writing isn't meant to be a painting; it's a pencil sketch. You put a few lines in the correct places, and an image appears. When you have a lot of experience under your belt, the more and more precise you can make your pencil lines, until each paragraph rings true in the reader's mind. And if we limited ourselves to our personal experiences, we would be choosing to ignore the wealth of knowledge that is already out there.

    Writing What You Want To Write
    Some people get an idea, an image, a piece of dialoge, a poem fragment. Or a character idea comes to them fully-formed, and they realize they really want to write this character's story ... but the idea is space travel. The image is a cyborg. The dialogue involves a conversation between a god and a broken-legged policeman. And the character is a eunuch and an aeromancer.

    Well, I don't have a lot of experience to help me. But I want to write the story, dammit, not waste weeks doing research! So how do I go about it?

    1) Write the story, as much as you can. When you don't know something, make it up or mark it (I use NTFO, or Need To Find Out, because there aren't many words with the NTFO letter combination), or put on a ten-minute timer and look it up for ten minutes on Wikipedia.

    2) Outline, loosely or rigidly, and when you have figured out the bits you can do without research, write them. Go back later after you've done the rest of the research, and cover anything you need to fill in.

    3) Make the story about the people, not just the gimmick of the technology or the religion or the magic. I can't know what it's like to manipulate air currents, but I do know what it's like to have people depend on you because you're the best trained person around, and what it's like to practice something for hours a day because you have to in order to keep your skills up. I may not know what it's like to have a broken leg, but I have friends who have had broken legs, and I've sustained a couple injuries myself over the years. So I can write about the people, and about how they act and react, about their hopes and their dreams.

    4) Write the whole story as it comes to you, and ask several other people to look it over and bring your attention to any plotholes they find. Follow King's rule: If four people catch different things, you're fine. If three of the four notice the same problem, fix it.

    How to Avoid Angering Your Readers

    1) Make sure your omnicient viewpoint isn't judgemental. If a character says that Muslims are barbaric, that's one thing. If the narration says the same thing, that will make the readers mad. (Paging William Forstchen, a pro writer who hasn't yet learned that if his omnicient narrator says women are foolish and stupid, it makes a seriously poor impression.)

    2) Readers may be annoyed at you for messing up a fact or mispelling a word. But they will actively dislike you if you are inconsistent. If you find out halfway through the book that yew makes for a better bow stave than maple, don't just change the characters' bows in the second half of the book. Make sure you go back and make the correction in your already-completed chapters, or resign your characters to having inferior bows. For the love of all that is shiny, do NOT suddenly change your stallion to a gelding because of research, or state that now a character can't eat beef when he could earlier. It throws me off when the character can eat a hamburger in Chapter 3, and suddenly can't in Chapter 10 because he's a Hindu.

    3) Similarly, blanket statements about complicated topics will anger more readers than small mistakes. I don't mind if an author gets the half-life of a plutonium isotope wrong. I do mind if they say that it's impossible to protect yourself against radiation.

    4) Own up to (and, when possible, correct) your mistakes. If a reader catches a huge error in your published book, you might mention that in the Forward of the next edition of your book. If one of your first-reader friends catches an error and gets annoyed, don't try to wriggle out of it; just thank them, note down what they say, and make corrections as necessary. If someone says "This is physically impossible," then fix the problem.
     
  20. rainy
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    rainy Senior Member

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    I like what Cog says, know what you write. Try, as much as pssible, to get into the real-world aspect of what you want to write. Instead of thrift-store recycled experiences, try to relate first-hand, even if that means you have to go out of the house for a while. Naturally, this can only go so far though, but I have to correct one thing: don't just learn what you "need to know". Learn much more than your story requires and you'll have the ability to make it richer just by default.

    Again, still running in a sick/medicated haze so pardon the rambling, typos. I swear I've checked for consistency...

    //R
     
  21. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    rainy:
    Yes! This is a must. If you are to write a story out of your element, then research as much as you can. Immerse yourself or as David McCullough says: "Marinate yourself in your subject."
     
  22. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    *shudder* How can anyone consider their book finished with inconsistencies like that?
     
  23. HeinleinFan
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    I don't know. I have seen it done.

    In One Second After, a character is stated to have been reasonably close to his mother-in-law, but they have a "we just met, what do I call you?" scene. Really, now, eight years visiting every week and you haven't worked out that she should call you John instead of Jonathan? But then, this is also the book where a crowd appears out of nowhere. (Not even kidding, the character is walking along with four other characters, and then he turns and makes a pretty speech to the dozens of people who have apparently just Apparated onto the scene. I mean, how the hell are they supposed to have even found out about the debate, if electricity is out and phones aren't working and you only caught the criminal an hour ago? And the character apparently didn't, you know, see or hear any of the assembled group until he started speechifying.)

    Somewhere in the Sword of Truth series, a character whose special abilities are allegedly limited, the "I can judge people, break spells and swordfight" magic turns into "I can list an antidote recipe having no knowledge of the local plants, or of poison, and despite being in a coma."

    In Angry Ghosts, it is stated that the society is very reserved and doesn't believe in wasting energy on strong emotions. It's even a plot point. This doesn't stop any of the three main characters from being just as silly, happy, angry and sad (and expressing it, like punching the wall and crying) as anyone in our world.

    In The Protector's War a horse's name changes halfway through a book. I think this was a copy-editor's error, but it's still weird when Celebroch becomes Celloch (or whatever it was). In this case the book was really great, I definitely recommend it, but I know a little of the language in question and so I noticed when "Silver Stallion" became "Garbled Words".
     
  24. Acer
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    Acer Member

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    Personal experience

    How important do you think personal experience is to an author's writing?

    I know that with plots like "Earth being invaded by aliens" the author obviously hasn't experienced a planetary assault, but nevertheless smaller things like the death of a loved one, being uprooted from the safety of a home, or a camping trip in the wilderness could be drawn from in order to give some depth to the plot.

    In my case, I've lead a rather sheltered life. That's one of the things I think has hindered my writing in the past-

    > I've never had a close family member die (yet)
    > We never did anything exciting like a trip- I haven't been on holiday in about 10 years.
    > I still live in the house I've lived in all my life
    > Never had a relationship- and indeed I don't understand romance or sexuality, which is difficult when thinking of those elements in my books.
    > I'm rather socially awkward and I don't form close bonds with people (I have no friends IRL either) so that is a bit difficult when writing about connections between characters, especially those who are meant to be close.

    The list goes on really. I don't have a lot of life experience and in some cases, such as the relationship bit, never will. Do you think this will always hinder me or can a writer convincingly bluff their way around these obstacles?
     
  25. AnaSezz
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    I think personal experience can, indeed, be quite helpful, though not absolutely necessary. Surely it helps to make a situation seem more genuine if you've experienced it, but the same result is as achievable even if you haven't experienced it.

    My suggestion would be to observe. You can learn quite a bit by simply observing different situations, which can in turn help you in your writing. Do plenty of research on a subject matter, and perhaps talk to people who have had the experience that you haven't. Don't let your lack of experience keep you from writing. After all, authors are very much like liars. Weaving elaborate stories that are just fiction.

    That's just my two cents. I hope it helps.
     

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