1. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    Write what you know . . .

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by The Backward OX, Sep 27, 2009.

    Elsewhere on this site I found the following remark, by another member:

    “It's very difficult to write convincingly in a regional setting you are not personally familiar with. Third party familiarity doesn't work well, as a rule.”

    I wonder how many writers avoid attempting to write about personally-unfamiliar locations.

    Here’s a 300-word extract from a short I wrote. Ask yourself if it reads as if I know what I’m talking about. Then have a look at the explanation.


    “The gravel-edged road breasted a low rise between stands of mean-looking shrubs, and suddenly the valley opened out ahead. Grenville parked the Vauxhall, stepped out, and spent some minutes gathering a first impression.

    The overall picture seemed bleak, with harsh grey rock rather than earth the major feature. Smooth outcrops predominated, shaped by glacial action during the last Ice Age, and still showing scrapes from the detritus pushed over them by the ice-flow.

    A narrow track wound up away from him, vanishing into an isolated bank of mist. In the middle distance he observed what appeared to be a standing stone, probably a religious relic of a past millennium. On the lower slopes, areas clear of rocks existed, and here a few black cattle grazed peacefully, with cultivation of crops also occurring in one or two small fields. A gurgling stream tumbled down one side of the valley to join a more placid watercourse meandering across a depression edged with dark green trees.

    And in places, both on the floor of the valley and on level ground amongst the rocks, stark reminders of the Famine remained evident – scatterings of stones, each group once a dwelling hut that had fallen into disrepair through lack of human occupancy.

    Grenville focussed intently on the setting. In his mind’s eye he could see a woman in rags digging with a sharpened stick in the shallow soil, planting or perhaps harvesting potatoes or turnips, while her husband staggered towards the nearest village, bent beneath a back-breaking load of the cut hazel poles used for thatching the roofs of the well-to-do.

    He thought, if one looked around Ireland, it would not be just a place of rocks and trees and rivers. One needed to consider its history. It swarmed with phantoms, with ghosts, out of its ancient past. They all drift in, and make the landscape what it is.

    The mist began twisting and rolling down off the higher slope towards Grenville. Within seconds the swirling damp greyness enveloped him. He became disoriented . . .”



    Ok. It’s meant to show a real location in south-west Ireland. I’ve never visited Ireland. I used a photograph of the valley, plus some geological and historical notes, all of which I found on the internet, as the basis for my writing.

    I’ve used similar methods to write about a location in England and another in the US. Again, I’ve never been there. In each case a local resident told me I did a good job. (Maybe they were just being polite)

    I believe if anyone wants to write about unfamiliar settings, there’s ways and means of doing it successfully.
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Well I guess nothing in the passage is wrong, like I can't say its not Ireland, but there isn't really a lot there that screams "ahh yes, that is Ireland". Valley, rocks, fields and streams are found in virtually every country if you know where to look, and by removing only a few words from your passage it could be made to apply to almost anywhere in the world.

    Its easy to write "generic nature setting", "generic suburb" or "generic city" and then tell people where it is; its far more difficult (if not impossible) to really give a sense of the place if you're not intimately familiar with it. So yeah, you can write pretty easily about unfamiliar settings, but, like the photograph you based your impressions on, it will only be a shallow and superficial proxy of the real thing.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It depends on how deeply your story gets into the locale. What you describe above is still connecting to your own experience. You have an actual image of the countryside, and it is similar to countryside you are familiar with, so you can write the scene comfortably.

    But what if your character spends weeks there? Do you know enough about the typical weather there of your chosen time of year to portray it believably? What of the people who live there, their manner of speech, their way of life, their working lives and their ways of passing free time? What is the scent on the breeze? Is it a light warm breeze or does it whip your hair and sting your cheeks? What sounds do you hear on that countryside?

    Some of these may be nitpicky, but it's details like that that someone who knows the area will read, and eitjer think, "Oh yes, I know that area well." Or he will think, "What? This author doesn't know what he's going on about."
     
  4. seta
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    seta Contributing Member

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    Here is a formula for discovering how accurate you need to be:

    - Will your description convince most readers?

    You don't have to convince the experts, you only have to convince the masses.

    FOR EXAMPLE:

    One of my professors had been a nuclear engineer aboard a US submarine at the time Hunt for the Red October had been released. As a courtesy, a local theatre allowed the crewman to screen the movie the day before it released. Many of the seamen were laughing at "strange parts" of the movie, simply because of how ungodly inaccurate some of it was. Yet Red October, to my knowledge, never received mass criticism for it's subtle inaccuracies. It convinced most people.
     
  5. afinemess
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    afinemess Active Member

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    there a section of my novel that takes place in Iraq. I've never been there, but I watched some videos my husband took, and asked a ton of questions, and when he read the section, he said it was very convincing. I just kind of closed my eyes and placed myself there and wrote what I thought it would feel like. (however, on a funny note, my dialoug with the soldiers was more than a little off. I did have to take some tips there. haha My approach of lots of cursing followed by some fancy terms didnt go over well. :D)
    So no, I dont think you have to live somewhere to write about it accuratly.
     
  6. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    It didn't stop Stephen King. I remember reading something about The Stand, King actually apologizes for any inconsistency when referring to certain towns. I thought that was pretty funny.

    I think setting is important but you don't have to be perfect.
     
  7. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    Nice one.

    I looked it up and you're pretty right about what he said.
     
  8. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    This is true, which is why when an author does absolutely nail a particular setting it is so apparent and so enjoyable.
     
  9. TheMaterialMatters
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    TheMaterialMatters New Member

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    It's important not to take the rule too literally. Writing what you know doesn't necessarily amount to only writing locations, professions, and themes you are intimately familiar with. A school kid doesn't necessarily have to write about school kids... It's only important for them to recognize their potent individual perspectives, namely that the school kid can write characters from a point of naiveté or innocence no matter the age or profession of said characters. Writers need to be creative. Writers should allow their more inclusive experiences to inform an inclusive story. It needn't be so cut and paste.

    Maybe you have never visited Ireland. Maybe you're just a outdoors lover who constantly pauses to admire natural world. In that possible-maybe situation you could explore Ireland with the familiarity and knowledge of admiring nature, because as long as you approach the substance of your passages with authenticity, the details aren't terribly important. Finding a deeper authenticity is also the key to unlocking fictional people, locations, and scenarios you otherwise wouldn't be familiar with.

    If you're not knowledgeable about the surface level of your topic, maybe you're knowledgeable about something deeper. Again: be creative about it. A lot of writing is problem solving your own ignorance.
     
  10. wt6869
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    wt6869 New Member

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    I take "write what you know" more as a warning. Doing a good bit of research can help to overcome some of the problems of writing about a subject that you do not know. The problem comes when someone does absolutely no research and uses cliches to write the story.
    An example I use is when I see stories about current era military characters. A lot of young writers just look at some old movies and try to use Vietnam era lingo and attitudes to portray these characters. It is clear, being ex-military, that the writer did not make a very good attempt to get it right.
    Another difficulty is when American writers try to project American ideals and the American way of thinking onto characters of other countries. I have been overseas and can say reasonably well that we Americans have a different perception on everything.
    It's easy to get a lot of research with the internet and it's easy to chat with people in different countries, so it can be easy to write about a place that you've never been to.
    Do your research and do it well and you should be alright.
     
  11. seta
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    seta Contributing Member

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    Eh, the "write what you know" thing seems kind of off to me. How many scifi writers have been aboard a starship or messed with hyper/warp drive manifolds? How many authors have faced down with extraterrestrial enemies?

    I don't think Timothy Zahn has ever actually experienced the Force... :)

    If "write what you know" were any sort of serious warning, then there would be entire genres missing from the current lexicon...
     
  12. Sound of Silence
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    Sound of Silence Member

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    'Write what you know; learn what you don't'

    Whoever said it, it makes sense to me.
     
  13. boo
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    boo Member

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    You know what I say to this...write what you love. And Research what you love. I personally hate this phrase, you are not a historian, you are a novelist--it's okay if you're not a leading authority on the subject. Libba Bray -- wrote about girls in boarding school in late 1800s in England--she is from Texas (she is also a bestseller). Michael Ondaatje -- wrote the English Patient --set in North Africa and Italy-- Author is from Canada.

    Write what you know

    really means...

    Know what you write. ;)
     
  14. bumboclaatjones
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    bumboclaatjones Member

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    thats as may be, but I'll bet you that Libba Bray and Michael Ondaatje researched the **** outta those locales and time periods. If you're gonna write about history, you have to get things right. As a former history student and a lifelong lover of the history of mankind, historical inaccuracy pisses me off unless it is for story continuity (The Emperor trilogy comes to mind. The final scene of the first book is, of course, impossible, as Gaius Marius died some years before Cornelius Sulla took the city of Rome, but I digress). Accuracy is HUGE for story readability. That's why my lazy ass only writes about things I have actually done. I think the options are really just research your subject really well, or go out and live yourself an interesting life. I think that the second approach is way more fun, though.
     
  15. boo
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    boo Member

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    yeah that's what I meant by Research what you love and KNOW what you write. I agree it's really hard tackling an unfamiliar topic and a LOT more work, that's why I admire historical and other novels where the authors had to do lots of research. But yeah i'm lazy too lol, it's a lot easier to write what you know, really though it is kind of a stupid phrase cause it's like the antithesis to creativity --which is writing something new ans seems awfully limiting at face value. I only take it to mean to know your subject inside and out--even if it's one you made up if you're writing fantasy, sci-fi or whatever.
     
  16. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Write what you know" is an adage from a different era...you know, BC (Before Computers). Prior to the internet, it was much more difficult to get a realistic "feel" for a region, topic or culture that a writer did not already know from first hand experience.

    Today, it is easy to find substantial information on just about any subject. Down-loadable JPEG sound bites allow actual listening to accents. Videos, often offered by tourism agencies and Chambers of Commerce, provide general "experience" of regions. Greater detail is often found in resource material, educational and scientific studies of regions. Even church-based videos, you know the ones that plead for money to "help fight poverty", often show the worst areas and human conditions to get people to donate. They make for great contrast against the tourism videos.

    IMO, there is no limit to the information available to writers today as long as they develop skill in internet research.

    About the only thing the internet can't provide is smell--I doubt it will be very long until computers offer a "smell card" that can replicate odors. Can you imagine emailing a "special" odor to some unsuspecting person who antagonized you? Or, download baking bread odors for your open house sales event. Even without a "smell card", obscure scent details are available and can be well described. I remember things like the musty smell of decaying jungle plants along the Mekong River. Or, the body odor and fish sauce scent of North Vietnamese soldiers as they passed by my concealment. And then there was the mixture of motorcycle smoke, Vietnamese food cooking on the roadside and raw sewage only a few feet away that permeated Saigon on a typical afternoon. I knew those smells first hand and I have often been surprised to find accurate descriptions of those distinct odors in veteran blogs and Vietnam War internet sites.

    Point is, in today's world, "write what you know" is a bit too restrictive. It probably should be turned around..."know what you write"...meaning that a writer should do plenty of research before attempting a story outside of his or her personal experiences. But, with the help of the internet, it's possible for any writer to write convincingly about almost any topic.
     
  17. Irish87
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    Irish87 Contributing Member

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    I absolutely hate the idea that you must only write about what you know. If we simply stick with that we're sure we know one hundred percent then suddenly nothing is ever new. Think of it in terms of real life: if only those who have experienced something can then go and do it then no one would ever be permitted to do anything.

    Unfortunately, being an avid fan of constant learning, I must admit that when you're doing something such as writing then you should spend the time to study the location of your setting. The same goes with your characters and the world around them. You don't have to be from Ireland to describe the island, but you should at least spend a good day learning about it.

    In the end we're all ignorant until we decide to learn.
     

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