7 Writing Rules: #6 Write What You Know

This is good advice when you are writing historical fiction, a biography, stereo instructions, or a dissertation on medieval warfare with an emphasis on piercing head injuries. If you are using any of these things, do your damned research and then write what you know.

However, I like fantasy and contemporary fantasy and things in that strain. That being said, you can’t ignore the laws of physics entirely, or you need to make your exceptions to that based in fact. When you change things or explain them with magic, you must know the rules of what you are changing, and you must be consistent and build your fiction accordingly.

I think another, perhaps better way of putting this world is that you have to know what you are talking about. If, for instance, you want to make a breed of troll that originated from sharks interbreeding with moles (I’m making this up as I go along. Don’t judge.), you can work all the magic you need, but you have to know the source material. Do your research on sharks and moles. Since trolls are typically not good with the sunlight, you can think of ways to implement these into something new while using a trope. Since trolls are out at night, you could give them boring night vision, or spruce it up a little. You could have the trolls navigate by an electrical sense like sharks with their ampullae of Lorenzini, but have limited vision like moles…you had better know what those are and how to implement them and how to explain them. You are using the different parts of these animals — also known as writing what you know — to create something new, or something old with a new flavor.

Stephen King (I believe) uses the example of a plumber who wants to write science fiction. I’m elaborating here, but stick with me. The writer knows plumbing, so this imaginary person would write a novel about a plumber recruited to perform routine maintenance on a starship…that then gets captured by a hostile alien race. Using his knowledge of all things pipes and using the aliens’ disregard for a simple maintenance worker (who may not smell too good after a mishap with a broken pipe), he saves everyone, blah, blah, blah. This imaginary writer uses what he knows to produce something that sounds at least interesting.

What you shouldn’t do, for instance, is try to write an alternative history of Henry VIII’s reign from the viewpoint of Anne Boleyn actually being a witch…and make her the fifth wife. Or saying that she lived in the Tuscan court where she was a child bride to the court jester who taught her magic and how to shuck clams with her teeth. (Anyone who knows anything about Anne Boleyn just had a seizure. We will wait for them to revive.) Or write about a gravity-immune pig who poops edible figs and speaks only in backwards limericks…who breathes under water and has poisonous wing tips.

Write what you know. Use what you know to enhance your story, but feel free to change it and play with it while sticking to the rules. Don’t pull an edible fig from your backside and present it as roast pheasant. That’s just absurd.

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~ by Darren Endymion on February 7, 2017.

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