Friday, October 21, 2016

Writing What You Know

Somewhere in the middle of my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Martha Conway, we talk about a piece—perhaps the most common piece—of advice given to would-be authors: “write what you know.”

Martha, like my fellow Five Directions Press novelist Joan Schweighardt, comes down on the side of writing what she doesn’t know, because that’s exactly what she most wants to find out. I, in contrast, tend to write what I know best—in part because I have the privilege of knowing quite a bit about a time and place unfamiliar to most people. I’d like to share that information with other people. When I get off work for the evening, I don’t have sufficient brain cells left to tackle serious history, never mind original research—that has to wait for my time off. I assume others have similar experiences, so I figure that if I want people outside my field to read about sixteenth-century Russia, fiction is the way to go.

Even so, my decades of research don’t always supply the exact information I need for fleshing out a story. I spend a lot of time chasing down details that fiction happens to require. I also find that writing, paradoxically, is easier on subjects where I have learned just enough to capture the essence of another person’s world, not so much that I have to rediscover what I’m taking for granted. In that sense, I agree with Martha: it can be better—and in general more fun—to write what you don’t know.

But at a more basic level, what does it mean, in an imaginative context, to “write what you know”? At least until whales learn to type or the Vulcans make contact, all writers are human. Cultures and assumptions may differ, but emotions, expressions, and needs vary much less. Gestures can be culturally determined (the source of numerous diplomatic faux pas over the centuries), but many are instantly recognizable. By the time we reach adolescence, we already have enough experience of life’s highs and lows to imagine hunger and fear, anger and a sense of abandonment, frustration and triumph. The characters we create need food and shelter, to move and eat and sleep, to live among others who care about them and whom they love. Most of us understand concepts like music and dance, art and experimentation, even if today’s chemistry was once alchemy and today’s understanding of the heavens would have amazed the ancients. For fiction set in the present, this is often sufficient. Where readers and writers share a cultural context, a huge amount of background information goes without saying. For historical and science fiction—and, of course, fantasy—authors have to find a way to sketch in that background without getting caught up in a dry recitation of facts. That’s where “knowing” comes in. And where it can get in the way, if the author can’t bear to let go of the facts acquired with such effort and let the story take priority.

Then again, what is “knowing” in historical or science fiction or fantasy terms? Does it stop with a mastery of the facts, such as we can determine them? (I could write at least one more blog post on the difficulty of that!) I’d say no. Facts and details do play a role in creating a novel that can sweep a reader into another century and locale by underlining the differences between there/then and the present. We would not do those things or eat those foods or dress that way, so we are not those characters, even if we empathize with them. We are on a journey, led by an author who has put in the time to master his or her subject and convey it to us in an accessible way.

Still, many facts escape us, and in the interests of fiction a writer can alter others, so long as they are either minor or confessed at the end. “Knowing” has to go deeper than facts. Above all, I think, it means understanding where our own assumptions differ from those of our characters, because of distance in time and/or space. Writers need to allow themselves time to identify the boundaries of a non-contemporary, not-from-“here” person’s view of the world. Once we cross that bridge, imagination and emotional experience kick in, and we can begin to construct how a given character might experience and react to story events. Then the story truly comes to life and draws us in.

This imagining is what Conway does so well in Sugarland. You can find out more by listening to her interview and, of course, by reading her book.

Images purchased from, #109492886 and 10950787.


  1. I absolutely agree. For a writier, simply knowing the facts is not enough. Besides, when you come to a place where you 'know' enough of your character's cultural identity and history, you actually know more than you think.

    I write stories set in the 1920s. I started from scraches. When I first wrote my first project, I knew nothing, and I mean 'nothing' about the 1920s. I had to learn everything. And it was very awckward at the beginning, because I was acutely aware of my ignorace.
    But by reading history books, reading novels from the era, watching silent films, researching in general, I've eventually become so confortable in my 1920s shoes (so to speak) that I know by instict whether something is likely for that time or not, even if I don't actually 'know' it.

    That's why I think there is never too much research. It isn't a matter of amassing information, it's a matter of familiarity with the world you're writing.

  2. Thank you, Sarah, for your thoughtful response. To those who may be wondering, Sarah's comment posted twice—that's the only reason I removed it.


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