Writing what you know?

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. As a reader, though, you want to feel as though the writer really understands his subject, with the kind of expertise that seems so natural that it never shows.

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 gleaned through immersion in book or film, or 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 or 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 evidently been done but had, 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. 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.

For me, the problem was in the way that article portrayed the writer as having enough expertise in the subject to feel able to share it. What was written was presented as knowledge… which was true in as far as it went. It was accurate. What was lacking was any real understanding of what the writer was writing about; which meant that it was about as far from the truth as you can get.

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

For some reason… for it was a totally different subject… it reminded me of when I had landed myself a job as a transport manager in heavy haulage. I had no qualifications, no knowledge other than several years driving a white van and no experience of running a fleet of vehicles.

My boss worked on the principle that whatever he wanted done, the lads would 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. But he lacked any practical experience and the jobs he planned invariably went wrong. He tried to cram too many jobs 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 from the snowball effect 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 hiab cranes… 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.

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; I 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, in some way at least, 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 if we are prepared to immerse ourselves for a moment in the emotions our minds can conjure.

Readers are people too and they are neither blind nor credulous. There is a subtle difference between drawing upon abstracted experience… as you might if writing a murder mystery where you would learn about forensics, anatomy, and psychology as well as reading real-life accounts… and presenting cardboard facts as reality. Weave the imagined experience around the facts until they take on a life of their own. But don’t, for goodness sake, present just the facts without working with them and bringing them to life for you, even if only in imagination.

‘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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60 Responses to Writing what you know?

  1. I love the idea of being as tactile as possible in your writing. Trying to experience things will give you texture and liven up the piece for sure. Great points!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. If you only wrote what you “know,” there’d be no science fiction or fantasy. No fairy tales. We can create recognizable CHARACTERS but we don’t need to create situations that are familiar. Imagination matters 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Imagination lets us take our own experience and use it as the basis for things we will never do or know… but it all starts with what we do know and needs the alchemy of imagination to make it ‘real’. 🙂

      Like

  3. Thanks as always for an excellent article, Sue. It is really helpful. After I read this, I was trying to figure out if any of this fit me, and the more I tried to understand the more I honestly did not know. I try to keep my blog up in some way or other as often as I can. Right now it is the thing that helps keep me going when I have a lot of pain physically as well as mentally with all we have going on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I do hope things ease for you soon, Anne.

      Like

      • Anonymous says:

        That makes a whole lot of us, Sue. Richard’s health is getting worse each day, and I am pretty overwhelmed. I am trying to get back to my lessons, but I need to do those when I have a clear head. I really miss them though, and that is the truth.

        Like

  4. Sadje says:

    Great post! We do need to do our research and understand what we are writing about. Thanks for sharing Sue!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sometimes I think a piece of writing is more enjoyable if the technical details are left out. One reason I never read science fiction—authors put all the details in and it bores me rigid. As long as the basic facts are right, it’s usually the characters and their reactions/emotions that carry the story rather than intricate descriptions of the bit of the sprocket that spins round inside the gasket, and what the horse’s inner hock smells like when it has worms, and which of the dililthium crystals need recharging.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. There has to be a sense of something else words are words not stories – as a scientist I can rarely read science scenes in novels – it’s not that they’re often inaccurate it’s more they’re detached from reality, have no meaning to me. Thanks for an interesting post, Sue, it got me thinking as I stare out of the window looking at the rain!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jenanita01 says:

    Writers need an incredible imagination to put themselves in the shoes of their characters…

    Like

  8. I am the first to admit that I don’t know everything but I have been in an industry for over 20 years that is littered with misconceptions, fads, trends, ‘expert’ pronouncements, celebrity juju and sometimes downright dangerous recommendations, such as the latest from Gwyneth Paltrow on ‘leanest liveable weight goal’ which in most’s opinion is going to fuel an further increase in anorexia and other eating disorders. These days of television and movies all with the latest forensics and technology, I would be hard pushed to write a murder mystery or thriller or science fiction.. even children are more knowledgeable than I am. I am hoping I have half a chance writing fairy stories..xx

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      That sounds incredibly dangerous and misleading! I can see how many young women might embrace the idea, though, and end up damaging their health. It seems to be an irresponsible statement.
      As we access the realms of fairy through the imagination, one way or another, we have all the tools to write fairy stories… though research also uncovers a darker side to their history. xx

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Lindsey Russell says:

    One would hope we all do the theoretical research of something we don’t know, but if backing it up with practical research is impossible then please, please, run it by someone who does have practical experience. My personal bugbear is authors who know nothing about horses thinking they can read up on them and then have them or the rider commit the biggest faux pas going. And if you can’t find an expert to check it over then skim the details.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. petespringerauthor says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Sue. I like the example you provided as being a transport manager. Those people in the know are going to be offended when writers put out information that doesn’t jive with real life. My dad was a wildlife biologist, and it would drive him nuts when someone would paint a picture or make a model of a bird with incorrect coloring and marking.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Sue, Thank you for sharing such strong and wonderful advice. I greatly appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for a reflective article. I’ve always chafed at the “write what you know” dictum so appreciate your thoughts on how to write deeply and meaningfully when you haven’t had the exact experience you’re writing about.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. A wonderfully well thought out post, Sue. I must be honest that I have never seen a ghost or a dead body but I do undertake serious research on this I write about that I haven’t experienced and I imagine how the person would have felt.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      There are plenty of accounts out there to research and all that is needed once we have the facts is to put ourselves in their place… although we will still ‘see’ and ‘feel’ through our own lens to some extent.

      Like

  14. macjam47 says:

    What a wonderful post, Sue. I love reading a well-researched book where the author has enough knowledge to portray scenes or characters in an honest and believable way. You just can’t write about the 1800s and use today’s slang in conversations or refer to technology, whether a modern mode of transportation, appliance, or cell phone, and have a story the reader can connect with and find entirely plausible. I’ve read some poor tries by wanna-be authors who have tried to write with little or no thought or research into what they are writing about. I’m wading through one now that was given to me by a local author-to-be who wants my review to help launch her book which is so disconnected and lacks depth, readability, and which covers a subject she obviously knows nothing about. She really needs more help than I can give her.

    Like

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  16. Mikeachim says:

    >>”It was accurate. What was lacking was any real understanding of what the writer was writing about; which meant that it was about as far from the truth as you can get.”

    Aye, I’ve read things like that too. (Maybe I’ve written things like that as well. I hope not. Ulp.)

    I think it was a thriller and the writer was obsessed with getting the gun factually correct in every way. But then they missed the point about pointing a gun at another human being. They missed the human, emotional, awful truth of it. At least it felt that way (I have zero experience of guns, having a somewhat rural upbringing in the wilds of East Yorkshire).

    When folk say “write what you know”, I think they mean “write what you can meaningfully understand”. If you can acquire that understanding through factual research plus the application of your imagination, combined with your knowledge of people, of character and struggle – then I guess you’re writing what you know. But as you rightly note, the facts aren’t the knowing. Agreed.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I have never pointed a gun at another human being either…and can only begin to imagine how that must feel.
      You are right in your terms there…meaningful understanding is often what is lacking, but I don’t think most things are out of reach if we are prepared to let emotion, experience and imagination work together.

      As to East Yorkshire… I may be a West Yorkshire lass myself, but I know it well 😉

      Like

  17. Great points. I teach a creative writing class and sometimes I am hesitate to tell them the classic “write what you know.” Thanks for the insight!

    Like

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

    This was a beautiful quote :”’)

    Like

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