A little knowledge…

The desolation of Smaug. Images © Warner Bros. Pictures, Weta Digital.

The Desolation of Smaug. Images © Warner Bros. Pictures, Weta Digital.

We are always told that we should write what we know. To an extent, that is true, but those who are writing murder mysteries, for example, are hardly likely to start poisoning/bludgeoning/shooting their nearest and dearest in the name of research or feeding them to the local dragon, though, in the case of teenagers, this may occasionally seem a good option. The thing is, that most of us, if we are honest, have experienced…even at the mildest level… the emotions that can when taken to extreme and pathological levels, lead to such acts. Being human, we have every human emotion in our library of experience, even if some of them are vicariously gleaned through immersion in book or film, or more abstractly experienced through dream. Even if we have to draw upon them and take them far beyond our own experience, we have a starting point in a reality with which we are familiar. We can write from what we know ourselves, even if we know only the edges and the fleeting shadows of such emotions.

I read an article by a fellow writer on a subject that plays a part in their work. It was well written, well presented, clear and accurate in its facts. The research had clearly been done but had…and quite understandably from the writerly perspective… stopped when the need for facts to fit the work was fulfilled. Nothing at all wrong with that.

But as a reader, it left me snarling.

For me, the problem was in the way that article portrayed the writer as having sufficient expertise in the subject to feel able to share it. What was written was presented as knowledge… which it was, in as far as it went it was accurate. What was lacking was any understanding at all of what the writer was writing about; it was as far from the truth as you can get. Having worked with what was being written about for years, I know that what was portrayed was as two-dimensional as a child’s cardboard cut-out when compared to the reality.

Accuracy belongs to knowledge, truth comes from understanding… and understanding comes with experience.

For some reason… for it was as far away from the subject in hand as you could get… it reminded me of when I had landed myself a job as a transport manager in heavy haulage… without any qualifications, with no knowledge other than several years driving a white van and no experience of running a fleet of vehicles at all. My boss worked on the principle that whatever he wanted done, the lads would just have to find a way to do. He knew how wide the lorries were, what the reach of the hiab cranes were and, theoretically, how long it would take to get from A to B. The jobs he planned invariably went wrong, he tried to cram too many into each day, the drivers resented what they were asked to do, phoned in at the slightest hiccough and were inflexible in their approach. Every day, at least one of his jobs  had to be carried over to the next, leaving the drivers under increasing pressure and the customers understandably disgruntled.

I started staying behind after hours and coming in at weekends, on my own time, to learn about the job. I learned, by getting behind the wheel in the yard, about the difficulties of manoeuvering forty-odd tonnes and sixty-odd feet of articulated vehicle. The lads were happy to teach me. I learned too how to use the hiabs… how the ‘portable’ buildings they lift swing in the wind… how dangerous overhead cables can be… and how limited even the most precise operator is by the environment and weather in which they are working. I even learned how to position and plumb-in the mobile washroom blocks and delivered and installed  the portable toilets single-handed.

I already understood from my white van days that the distance even the best electronic map can give bears no relationship to the time a drive will take in, say, central London, where a mile can take an hour or more to travel. Or that twenty miles of country lane takes as long for an articulated lorry as sixty miles of motorway. And while I was about it, I got to know the men who drove the lorries… learned about their families, their hobbies, their lives… and how to take that particular lorry-driver humour and give it back with good measure.

The modicum of understanding I had gleaned by rolling up both proverbial and literal sleeves made all the difference. Even though I had barely scratched the surface of their expertise, the result was a real and mutual respect. I made sure the jobs were do-able and the lads worked miracles for me; they never, ever let me down on a job, even the most bizarre and we had plenty of those.

As a reader, I want at least the illusion of that same commitment from a writer. Knowledge is no more than theory and it is not until you put it into practice that you have any hope of approaching an understanding of the reality.

So what can you do when you have to write about something that is completely outside your ken? Facts are a good place to start… but research widely, both theoretical and subjective accounts if you can. Don’t just stick to one perspective. Try and relate to what it is that you are learning about at a personal level…or, if it is feasible, experience it for yourself.

If you are writing about an artist, for example… pick up a paintbrush, put your hands in oil paint, feel the texture of a canvas with fingertip and bristle… smell that magical combination of copal varnish and turpentine. You don’t have to be a Rembrandt, just apply paint… and whatever the result on canvas, you will have true subjective  understanding of the process.

There are things, though, for which every writer will have to use the ultimate tool…imagination and that too is a place where experience can be gained.  Readers are people too… and they are neither blind nor credulous. There is a subtle difference between drawing upon abstracted experience… such as you might if writing a murder mystery where you might learn about forensics, anatomy, and psychology as well as reading real-life accounts… and presenting cardboard facts as reality. Weave the imagined experienced around the facts until they take on as much life as a Smaug. But don’t, for goodness sake, present just the facts without working with them and bringing them to life for you.

‘Expert’ and ‘experience’ share the same etymology for a reason.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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30 Responses to A little knowledge…

  1. depatridge says:

    Reblogged this on Matthews' Blog and commented:
    Great insight

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Great advice from Sue 👍😃
    No dragons were harmed in the creation of this post…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. nokotahorse says:

    As Alexander Pope put it: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. TanGental says:

    well that’s thought provoking; hmm, I shall ponder on’t….

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If we only wrote about things we already know enough about to share, the state of human knowledge would be even worse than it already is.

    Also, as someone who wrote technical documentation for long decades, no one wants to read stuff with which they are already well-acquainted unless it offers new insight and/or information. “Write what you know” is a good thing on an emotional level, but utterly useless to a fiction writer. If that’s all we did, we’d be boring. Even to ourselves. And there are lots of ways to experience things in life that don’t happen to be a normal part of ours … vicarious, a weird thing I refer to as “research,” and this sometimes involved (gasp) talking to other people about what THEY do! I know, who DOES that?

    As for murder mysteries, let us hope most authors don’t decide to do original research for each book, although anyone who IS planning to so some serial killing, please check with me first. I have a list. (They never will be missed.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I think it has to be the business of the writernot to ‘write what you know’ but more to ‘know what you write’… and as you say, proper research goes a long, long way towards that. What irks me is when a writer has obviously just read the first article on Wiki and assumes that’s all they need to know to fool the reader. It is short-changing them in my opinion.


  6. Bun Karyudo says:

    You should write a murder mystery set in a road haulage firm. Actually, I read a good example of exactly what you’re talking about recently. Blogger Mick Canning wrote a short book called “Making Friends with the Crocodile.” The narrator is a middle-aged woman from a remote Indian village. Mick is not a middle-aged woman from a remote Indian village I’m almost certain, but I was completely convinced when I was reading the book. I assume it took a ton of research on his part to get it right.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ruth says:

    Great article, Sue – I remember reading a book once that was set somewhere in Scotland I know quite well, so I looked forward to having the area come to life for me on the page along with the characters. But sadly, it seemed to me that the author had simply picked the name of a village on the map in much the same manner as pinning the tail on a donkey, without ever visiting where she was writing about. As a result, the everyday logistics behind the scenes were all wrong, which inevitably jarred with anyone (like me) who knew anything at all about the area. For example, the main protagonist in the book did all her shopping etc in what looked to be the closest town on the map, but in reality wasn’t where people who live there actually go to shop. Rather than brave a relatively bad road prone to bad weather, they sensibly drive to a more easily accessible town much further away but taking far less time due to a much better road, and it had always been that way. Little things like that can make all the difference to how right or wrong the storyline feels to the reader, however well-written otherwise. Either make up a truly fictional place, and write it as you like, or have some knowledge and understanding of where you are setting your story so at least you can get the basics right. After all there’s artistic license, and there’s poorly researched scene-setting 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Thanks, Ruth, that type of thing is exactly the point I hoped to make here. Pure fiction and especially fantasy can do what it likes as long as it follows the rules of its own reality consistently, but as soon as you introduce something at least some of your readers will know, you have to get it right or it jars.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Amazing blog post from Sue. Thank you so much for this great advice!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Widdershins says:

    I have a series in mind set in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. As we (humans) come closer and closer to sending a manned (and woman-ed) mission to Mars I’m finding the ‘technology’ I made up for the series, reflected in the articles and information coming back from the probes sent to that region of our star system. Which is a good thing because I really, really, don’t want to retool all my tech. 😀 Even when you make it up, you have to get it right.

    I wonder if Edgar RIce Burroughs was disappointed when he found out Dejah Thoris couldn’t’ve existed on Mars. I know I was. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      The mind has ways of accessing something beyond logic when the imagination kicks in. Who knows whether the scientists get their ideas from fiction or vice-versa? Personally I think that once an idea is ready to mature, it is there in the ether for anyone who can use it to tap into…which is why so many sci-fi creations foreshadow reality so beautifully.


  10. Great article Sue. I think research and knowledge, married with good storytelling is what makes the book. A good liar, I mean storyteller, can convince you of most anything. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

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