In a recent writers roundtable over at comic and fiction writer Sean H. Taylor’s blog (Bad Girls, Good Guys and Two-Fisted Action, and if you’re not reading it, you’re missing out), we talked about the best and worst advice we’ve ever received as writers. More than half of us piled on the hate for that cursed pearl so loved by high school creative writing teachers everywhere: Write What You Know. What a load of crap, we agreed. How boring would fiction be if writers only ever wrote what they knew? There’d be no science fiction, no fantasy, no horror that didn’t make you cry and throw up, and very little romance of the slightest interest to anybody but the parties involved. I was part of the lynch mob, I freely admit. I think this idea of writing what you know has produced more soggy, self-indulgent crap calling itself story than any concept ever devised with the possible exception of “why do vampires have to be so mean?” Most of us in the roundtable write speculative fiction of one kind or another, and we rejected this nonsense out of hand. “Write what you know,” indeed. But now that I think more about it, I’m not so sure we were right.
After all, the advice isn’t, “Write ONLY what you know.” Very few of us have autobiographies that the average reader would find enthralling, no matter how artfully we might present them. There are exceptions, of course, and different readers will always be interested in and inspired by different things. But anybody who has a friend or cousin who posts every breath they take, every move they make, every leaf they rake to Facebook knows what I’m talking about. That being said, we all of us have our moments, and for writers those moments “recollected in tranquillity” (to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth just this once and never again, I promise) are what bring our stories to life and make them uniquely ours. Isaac Asimov presumably was not a robot, nor did he own one. But after reading the Foundation trilogy, I’m pretty sure he spent a fair amount of time is some situation which caused him to consider the need for and dangers inherent in altruism and the search for identity in plain, old, ordinary humans. Closer to home, I’ve never experienced a romance with a vampire, angel, or immortal faery prince. But I’ve loved and lusted people whose power felt out of proportion to my own, physically or otherwise, stayed in relationships that I weren’t sure were good for me because I cared for the other person so much, fallen hard for the bad boy. Because I know how that stuff feels and because I can write what I know, I can, hopefully, make a relationship between a human woman and a supernatural being live for a reader. And the same holds true for smaller, more specific details. I met my husband in person after knowing him online for two years. So when my heroine in Christabel’s Tale is nervous about meeting her internet beloved, I can describe just how she feels, even though my husband is not supernatural in any way but the way he manages to love me first thing in the morning. What I know combined with what I can only imagine is what makes my anything-but-hard-reality fiction come to life.
And there’s more than one way to know stuff. The advice isn’t, “Write ONLY what you know FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.” Research isn’t always necessary when you’re writing fiction. Too much research can be deadly if you try to shoehorn in too many “true facts” than your story can support. (Paging Diana Gabaldon; Phillipa Gregory wants you on the phone.) But if you’re writing about a time or place that actually exists or existed, you’d do well to read up on it first, even if you mean to deconstruct it down to rusty rails and put a steampunk topper on it. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than crashing into a detail that doesn’t belong. In the very first chapter of my very first Lucy Blue book, My Demon’s Kiss, my heroine walks through the cellar of her medieval castle past a basket of potatoes. Not magical potatoes, not vampire potatoes, just potatoes, set dressing, no big deal. Except nobody in medieval England had ever tasted, seen or even heard tell of potatoes. And oh my kittens, did I hear about it, and rightly so. That one mistake on page one destroyed the fragile experience of that story for the very sort of reader it most needed, a reader interested in living in a fantasy of the real medieval world. They could accept the existence of vampires because I focused all my gifts as a writer on making vampires plausible within that world. But those stupid potatoes I threw in a corner of a cellar and forgot just didn’t belong, and it was my job to know it and get them out of there. So don’t do that. Get your facts straight. Write what you know.
Right now as I write this, I’ve just started work on a horror novel set in the here and now in a small town in South Carolina very much like the one I’ve lived in all my life. I’ve written a short story or two set here in the Beautiful South, but never a novel, and rarely anything that explores the gothic version of this world as I see it. I’m writing what I know, and it’s liberating and very, very scary. The story is very much supernatural horror, and I wouldn’t wish what happens to these poor people on anybody, bless their poor sweet hearts. But ghosts and demons notwithstanding, they live in a world I know very well, and so far, I have to say I like it.