What do you think about the old adage of writing what you know?
I asked that a couple years ago in a post, and I’ll ask it again. That question still conflicts me.
Back when I was reading Margaret Atwood’s biography, I remember pausing over her process, considering the way she frequently pulled from the familiarity of her own life to write intricately woven stories. She used Canada as a setting, places she’d been, streets she’d walked, people (or at least an outline of them) that she once knew. Her experiences influenced her fiction—and still do to this day.
However, Margaret Atwood is also known for her speculative works, which are based in the future, just a few of many possible alternative conclusions (scary as her worlds would be) of our current trajectory. She doesn’t know the future or which elements of the future in her novels will eventually (if ever) come to pass, and yet, the fearsome thing about her work is that it is easy to believe it could happen.
So, going back to the first question I wonder: Which is better? A mix of “write what we know” and “write what we’d like to know,” or should we change our approach entirely to “what can we imagine?”
According to BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON over at the Atlantic, we should go with the latter. When he started writing away from the familiarity of his own life, he found that “the shift was seismic.”
Delving into the deeper unknown and pursuing the more difficult, untreaded path is never easy. I am a notorious perfectionist. The problem I have with writing what I don’t know is that I run into the feeling that I should know it. Then I start researching. Then I expand that research. Then I have this tendency of trying to know everything about everything and nothing gets written.
But I also have frequently submersed myself into the speculative world, envisioned a future that is not my own, of which I know absolutely nothing, and it has been a freeing lesson in creativity. In this world, my characters and the environment have rules, but they are not necessarily the same rules by which I live. Instead of pushing my own agenda upon them, the well-lit paths of my own past, for instance, I get to witness a new kind of life: one that is not my own to live, yet one that I will live anyway, through them.
In that sense, maybe our characters do know best.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pull from the aspects of your life that you do know. It’s entirely possible to bridge the gap between both worlds, writing authentically about the strange, abstract unknown while still drawing from familiar outlines: the sprawling sunset you witnessed on a mountainside, learning a language in a foreign country, meeting a person that all but confounds you. These are real experiences, but your characters don’t have to meet the same fate as you.
Abstract elements are combined and reinforced within the tangible nature of fiction. It’s not so much about what we know—it’s about what we could possibly know, and what we continue to learn, with each and every day that we experience the mundane, the novel, the risks.
So my conclusion? Write about the possibilities.
Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.
Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.
-Brett Anthony Johnston
Excellent post! As an aspiring writer I find myself in this dilemma quite often. The novel I’m currently working on is located in Dallas and I don’t even live in the US. However, through research, Google maps, and pictures, I’ve managed to construct my novel. And I get questioned about this a lot, people who remind me that probably it would be better to write about a place I’m familiar with. But I cannot place my novel in a small town when the novel is a fast-paced thriller about technology companies and cyber spying. It just doesn’t fit. So I really believe, as writers we should let our imaginations fly and write the story we feel we can tell. A story is not only about the setting, it also has characters and a plot. And if we feel comfortable about these last two, then I think the rest can be achieved with research. Or else, all my stories would have to about small towns 🙂
Hi Carla! Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experience. Glad to know I’m not alone. 🙂 I think it’s great that you’re going outside your own boundaries and setting your story in a city you don’t live in — or country for that matter! If it suits the story and your characters, then it sounds like the perfect place. My current novel’s setting is on Mars, so I spend a lot of time doing similar research: Curiosity’s photos, science articles, etc. Fair to say that I probably am not going to experience it firsthand.
One of the other Muses here, Robyn, currently resides in Texas, so I’m sure if you ever needed any feedback from a resident, she could offer some insights.
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It’s so funny that you blogged about this, Michelle, because I keep getting asked this question these days. A tiny publisher released by debut novel at the end of December…it’s about an eleven-year old homeless girl and people are shocked that I was able to “get inside her head.”
To me, it’s like forming a new friendship. We’re strangers at first, but the more time I spent with that character, the better I got to know her and could accurately convey her.
Besides, if authors only wrote what they knew, Moby Dick would never existed, Harry Potter.
Hi Marcy! Thanks for sharing your experience. And congratulations on the publication! I think that’s a perfect example. I’ve seen others mention something similar in reviews about writers writing younger characters.
Our individual experiences may differ, but we were all eleven once, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable that you were able to convey your character so accurately. 🙂
Your post set me thinking. I wanted to say that I write about the possibilities, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it is not entirely true.
The conflict details in my stories come out of my imagination. But I already generally know the characters, else I couldn’t write about them. And I use a known setting simply because it saves on research.
Yes, I was doing a good job of confusing myself. Of course you provided the answer at the end. It’s the story. Tell an interesting story convincingly and all else is forgiven.
A Hui Hou,