For the last couple of weeks, I have written my Professional Wednesday essays about the old writing adage, “write what you know.” In my first post on the topic, I wrote about tapping into emotions and our reactions to experiences to get past the limiting implications of “write what you know.” Last week I focused on working into our stories the things we love in real life, be they areas of study, hobbies, or passions.
For this week’s post, my last (for now) about this subject, I build on something said by my good friend, editor and writer Joshua Palmatier, for whose publishing imprint, Zombies Need Brains, I’ve been doing anthology editing the past several years. The other day, he and I talked about this series of posts and he told me that when he hears “write what you know,” he thinks of genre. He takes the advice to mean that if writers want to write fantasy, they should read lots of fantasy and familiarize themselves with its traditions, its tropes, its major works, its newest trends. Same with writing mystery, or SF, or anything else. Writers should know the literary terrain before they start to write.
This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me, and adds a dimension to the “write what you know” conversation that I hadn’t considered.
Indeed, expanding on this, it seems to me that when we look at the old advice from this perspective we start to consider all sorts of things. Yes, genre. But also research. World building. Character. In this construction, “write what you know” can almost be turned around to read “know what you write.”
I discussed the Thieftaker books in last week’s post, and I mentioned how my love of U.S. history steered me toward setting the series in pre-Revolutionary Boston. But I failed to mention then that upon deciding to set the books in 1760s Boston, I then had to dive into literally months of research. Sure, I had read colonial era history for my Ph.D. exams, but I had never looked at the period the way I would need to in order to use it as a setting for a novel, much less several novels and more than a dozen pieces of short fiction. Ironically, as a fiction author I needed far more basic factual information about the city, about the time period, about the historical figures who would appear in my narratives, than I ever did as a doctoral candidate.
The same is true of the worlds I build from scratch for my novels. My most recent foray into wholesale world building was the prep work I did for my Islevale Cycle, the time travel/epic fantasy books I wrote a few years ago. As with my Thieftaker research, my world building for the Islevale trilogy consumed months. I began (as I do with my research) with a series of questions about the world, things I knew I had to work out before I could write the books. How did the various magicks work? What were the relationships among the various island nations? Where did my characters fit into these dynamics? Etc.
“Write what we know/Know what you write” means having a sense from the beginning of a project of what the book ought to look like when it’s complete. I’m not suggesting that we have to outline (if outlining is your thing, great; if it’s not, that’s all right, too) or plan our narratives. But we should be able to visualize our worlds. We should know what sort of technology they have, what sorts of magic systems are at work. And we should know how we might market our stories — where they fit in the pantheon of whatever genre we’re writing.
Put another way, we need to be familiar with the work we’re about to do, both on a structural level and a publishing industry level. And we need this not because some guy with a blog said so, but because we want to sell our books. We want to interest agents and editors in them. We want to interest readers. And we don’t always have the luxury of waiting until the thing is finished to have these conversations. Again, I’m not saying we have to know everything that happens in the book ahead of time. I’m a dedicated outliner, and even I can’t do that. I am saying, though, that we should understand how to place our books in the marketplace. And we should know before we begin writing what world building we need to do, or what research we have to master, before we can tell the story we want to write.
Write what you know. Know what you write. As it turns out, the old advice makes a lot of sense in several different ways. It may not mean exactly what was intended when the phrase was first coined. But it still is valuable advice for today’s writer.