Young Writer's Scene
Adele Long, Associate Editor,
Issue # 3: 04/01/01
A Theory of Alternate History
Write What You Know--Or What You Want?
by Beth Adele Long
©2001, Beth Adele Long
writer has heard the old saw "Write what you know."
Many writers, young and old, have rolled their eyes at hearing
this. And sf writers in
particular are loathe to follow that advice; after all, if we only wrote
what we knew, where would we get the Narnias and Neuromancers of the
course, it's pretty difficult to write much about something you know
nothing about. Even if you're
going to make up every detail of your desert world, you still need to have
a concept of how desert ecosystems work, what it feels like to walk
through dry heat, and so forth. Generally
we get around such problems by doing our research: going to the library,
searching the Net, talking to people who know about the topic we're
my question is this: if you know how to do your research, and you want to
write about things beyond your home town, can you just ignore that whole
idea of "write what you know"?
reply is: no.
you start writing, you should write what you know for a while.
This doesn't mean every story has to be set in your home town, with
a protagonist that looks just like you and faces all the same problems.
That's not fiction; that's thinly veiled autobiography.
But there's an easy trap to fall into: writing about things that
are so far removed from your experience and your world that you're unable
to make the story real and important to the reader.
you ever read (or seen the movie) Anne of Green Gables?
Remember how Anne is always coming up with heroic, overwrought
tales of love and loss? She
was furious with Gilbert for telling her to write about what she knew--the
people and places of Avonlea and her own Prince Edward Island.
But when she finally took his advice, she was able to sell a
collection of stories. I
know, I know, this is all fictional in the first place, but I think the
lesson is valid. Anne didn't
solve her writing problems by writing boring descriptions of pokey old
Avonlea; she solved her problem by writing about things that had real and
deep meaning for her, things that she could describe in convincing detail
and with real compassion. My
guess is that if she'd wanted to try her hand at fantastic fiction next,
the lessons she learned by "writing what she knew" would have
served her very well indeed.
what you know has an added benefit for beginning writers.
Using familiar details of the world you know can free you to
concentrate more on other aspects of story-telling: the plot and stucture,
the characters, the language itself.
Sometimes I feel writing is like learning to drive a car with a
manual transmission. I can
work the clutch, I can shift gears, I can accelerate and brake and I can
steer--but when I try to do all of it at once, I go lurching down the
driveway fifty feet and then stall. Grounding
your story in familiar territory, with familiar issues, can be like taking
away some of those demands so that you can focus on getting the car going
in the right direction.
the relationships you know. Write
the places you know. Write
the crises you know. Test
yourself: can you make the things that are important and real to you seem
important and real to your readers? Can
you step away from yourself and your surroundings enough to see them with
an outsider's eye--to see what makes your world interesting and
meaningful? Can you tell the
stories that you see around you in such a way that people from your world
can read your work and say "Yes! That's exactly what it's like for me!"
If you're a musician, write about music.
If you live in a tropical climate, let the heat and humidity and
rich plants infuse your work. If
you have a large family, write about the deep love and fierce resentment
that can flow out of big families.
don't forget what you know better than anything or anyone else: yourself. You know what matters to you.
You know how you react to different people, situations, crises.
In all your writing, no matter how strange or far-reaching, it will
be the stories that are the most deeply personal that will be the most
powerful. Writing from your
understanding of yourself is not a matter of preference or style.
It is a necessity.
these lessons, and carry them with you wherever you go.
Writing what you know is not about limiting your scope.
It's about finding the things that you understand; it's about
sharing the things you have passion for; it's about making your work
deeper, more personal, and more alive.
versions of Vision