When I was in 1st grade, my teacher had us make a little 12-page book using cardboard, paper, and duct tape, and we each wrote our own little story in it. That was when I realized I wanted to be a writer.
By the time I was 10, I was writing novels – none were very good, but boy-howdy could I pump out a word count! It was then that a teacher gave me advice that I think all of us have heard: write what you know.
Even then, I knew that wouldn’t work: what the hell does a 10 year old know?
I feel that advice is a little misplaced, though.
I like fiction. I like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. And, as you may have noticed from other posts on this blog, that’s what I write (shut up, I did write those words). And a lot of what I read (and write) doesn’t take place in any real universe. So, here’s the question: how can I know anything about a world that doesn’t exist?
I want to re-think the Write What You Know advice.
Write What You Invent
The great thing about the fantasy/scifi/horror genres is that you don’t have to know anything; you can invent it. All of Narnia is made up – C.S. Lewis famously included a lamppost in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to prove to Tolkien that, yeah, you totally could include that in a fantasy story because you can just make it up!
Tolkien, obviously, took it the other way. Entirely. He created a vast and intricate world, with centuries of history and just… multiple languages. I’ll never get over that.
Absurdist literature works this way, too. All of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is the greatest modern example of absurdist literature out there, and if you haven’t read it, seriously do. Does any of it make sense? Not really. Is it still wonderful? Absolutely.
However, I think it’s worth noting that, even when you make it all up, there does have to be a central string that holds it all together.
The greatest fantasy/scifi/horror stories take place in a world with an internal logic. It doesn’t have to make sense (see Lemony Snicket) outside of its world, but it does have to make sense within it. And the story you’re trying to tell has to make sense in the world you’re telling it in.
Tolkien was telling an epic story about the struggle of good and evil, and how that struggle is not always as simple as it seems it should be – we need a vast, intensely detailed universe to tell this story.
Lewis was retelling Christianity in Narnia. Like Tolkien’s, these stories are also about the struggle between good and evil, but the lines are obvious and it’s obvious whose going to win. Narnia is an allegory; it has to be told in a world where heavy symbolism can exist side by side.
Snicket, on the other hand, is telling the story about how “good” and “bad” may not be good divisions at all and that part of growing up is navigating a world that may not always make sense. An absurd world allows Snicket to examine these themes through many lenses.
If you’re going to make it up, be prepared to dive deep down into that.
Write What You Research
Or maybe it’s research what you write, but I wanted to keep the format.
Anyway, part of the great thing about writing is it can be what you want. But, let’s admit, if you’re not writing in the fantasy/scifi/horror genre, you can’t always just make it up.
If you’re writing a historical fiction, you’re going to want to be well-versed in whatever historical fiction you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a real world setting, you might want to brush up on what that place (and the culture where that place is) is like, you know, where things are and what it looks like. That sort of thing. Words.
Bernard Cornwell pumps out historical fiction all the time. His The Saxon Stories are somewhat fictionalized story of one of Cornwell’s paternal ancestors. A great deal of the story is made up. The protagonist is fictional, but based off a real person. Many of the characters in the book existed, but they’re actual character is shifted to fit Cornwell’s own imagination, and Cornwell’s played with the actual historical timeline.
But what no one complains about is how it is historically inaccurate. The series is amazing, well-researched and incredibly immersive.
Alternatively, you have his book Stonehenge. Stonehenge is nearly entirely made up. We have no idea why people built Stonehenge, but Cornwell writes one possible explanation while creating an immersive world using research he’s done on what we know about the people of that age.
You may also choose to write a character or characters who are a different race, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or so many other qualities. I would encourage it: the value in creating characters who are not like you both give people who they are like a chance to see people like themselves (representation matters, yo), but also helps teach others to empathize with them.
But, do you research. Talk to people. Ask questions, LISTEN. Read up on people’s lived experiences. Make use of sensitivities readers. They’ll help you understand things you may never have before, pointing out areas you need to research more, and creating characters that are multidimensional and far more real.
Research is also a shockingly good place to find inspiration. Learning more about the characters you’re writing and the places where they live can create new avenues of storytelling you’ve never thought of before.
Write What You Learn
Writing is a great learning process.
I mean, not just the mechanics of POV, pacing, etc. Those are all important, and everything you write will help you teach that, too.
No, I mean, think about your WIP. What are you trying to say with it?
So, some of the best advice I ever got was to tell your story in a single sentence. Not a synopsis. But a summary.
In my first article, I described a story I had spent years writing about a girl who had been kidnapped by fairies as a child. It was a fantasy story, but it dealt with a lot of the psychological scarring she had experienced after losing her family and being told for so long that what she thought had happened hadn’t.
But, the story was about how sometimes, the only person you can save is yourself.
Ultimately, when I was writing the story, that was what I was exploring. That was what I was trying to learn.
The project I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo (can’t start preparing too early, right?) is about how growing up is as much about what you leave behind as what you take with you.
You may not know what you’re trying to learn as you’re writing. Sometimes, you have to get it out on paper. You may have to go through a couple of drafts.
Ultimately, though, when you’re writing, you’re trying to say something. You’re trying to explain something. There’s something you’re trying to learn and that you’re trying to teach.
That’s what you need to write about.
Write what you know is fine advice, but I don’t think that’s what it really is trying to tell you.
Write what you invent, what you research, what you learn. Or rather, know what you write. Even if you know it because you made it up, researched it, or learned it as you write.
Whatever you do, just keep writing.