Write What You Don’t Know

 I’m being a bit disingenuous.  Some of what you write has to be what you know.  Compelling characters are difficult to write without at least some life experience.  I would argue, however, that what you know should be the internal story, not the plot.  Or the setting, either. 

For most of the twentieth century write what-you-know has been taken to mean the whole shebang: plot, setting, character.  As a result, several generations of writers set off to join the merchant marine, or the foreign legion, or live in flop houses with the dregs of the earth.  I even knew a few.  I suppose they thought they were following their various muses, but, really, they were just taking Hemingway’s success too much to heart.  Hemingway wasn’t a successful writer because he drove an ambulance or fished for marlin off the coast of Cuba.  He was a successful writer because he knew how to write.  (Let’s not get into how a good a writer he was – that’s another post entirely.) 

There’s an idea.  If you want to be a writer, don’t join the merchant marine.  Practice your craft instead.  Because, if you can get the writing part down, and know how to tell a story, YOU CAN MAKE THE REST OF IT UP!  Really.  (It’s what most writers do, even if they have lived interesting lives.  No one ever tells the real story – not even memoirists (especially not memoirists).  Even if you try to tell the real story, there is always the limitation of point of view.  (viz, Rashomon.)) 

If you make the rest of it up, chances are your story will be more interesting than not.  You can have dragons, and robot sharks, and FTL.  And then you won’t have to write only about growing up in Orange County, or what a jerk your partner is, or what a jerk you are, or any of the other stuff that makes up most people’s lives. 

You’ll probably sell more books, too.  

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  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    Dustin Hoffman walked onto the set of “Marathon Man,” looking like a total wreck. He was to film the dental/torture sceen. Lawrence Olivier asked him why he looked so bad and Hoffman said he’d been up all night and all the previous day to capture the gritty desperation of the character.

    Olivier said, and I paraphrase, “My dear boy, have you ever considered acting?”

    Your point is excellent, Mr. Butler. I spent years trying to figure out how I was gonna write when I had never done anything. What I should have been figuring was how I was gonna write without taking some lit, composition, and oh yeah, writing classes. I got imagination a-plenty.

    Dissatisfaction with life as it is, carries my work. My job sucks, my pay sucks, my home life is good, but I’m not Capt Save ‘em all protector of the univers. So I sit down and write it down. There’s no magic beyond what makes it on the page/screen/disc, etc. Nothing else is more important than actually writing the story. Not Clark’s or Carey’s or Hemmingway’s; its my story. Good, bad, or ugly, it’s my story, the one that won’t leave me alone. No class, experience, or mentor can teach me that story.

  2. 2. vlecomer

    We don’t hear this often enough or early enough in life. Speaking of careers, could I interest you in the position of re-writing the curriculum in the public school education system in CT, please? O, uh… scratch that. I’ll just keep reading your books.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Preach it, brother. Your piece of truth, whatever it might be, is merely the tiny particle of grit you toss into the mouth of the oyster. The story is the pearl that comes out at the end – with the piece of truth wrapped in shimmering layers of a writer’s imagination…

  4. 4. NewGuyDave

    I’m glad you posted this because I really have no clue what it would be like to be a half-demon assassin in love with a thief-turned-priestess who channels divine magic. I have no experience being hunted by my former thieves guild nor minions of the dead god’s realm. Gladly, I have never had my soul-rended by netherworld fire, nor been stabbed by a nitziki darkblade.

    If I had to write what I’d know, I’d bore you all to tears about football and sales. Maybe I’m doing that anyway, but at least it’s more fun this way.



  5. 5. Doug Hulick

    This is one of those posts (and topics) that should be put on either a 6 or 12 month loop. The old “write what you know” chestnut has taken more beginning writers off at the knees than I can count, especially in college. Rather than “WWYK”, it should be “know what you want to write.” Then write it. :)

  6. 6. FKassad

    Which is all nice and well when you are writing about dragons, robot sharks and FTL, since no one really met/did any, but when you start writing about real-world stuff and those more familiar with that stuff catch you bluffing, it looks really bad. The Battlefield Earth sorta bad. Particularly when it turns out that most everyone else knows more about “the stuff” than the writer.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Elias – You can’t really write any story but your own.

    Vic – I’m already book for that gig in TX. (As if.)

    Dave – Football and sales might be interesting. Better than angst and being a writer.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Alma – I hear you, sister. See you this weekend?

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Doug – A lot of folks have no idea what they want to write – they just want to be writers. That will cut you off at the knees as well.

    Or you can become a journalist and learn the craft that way till you figure out what you want to write.

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    @6 You’ve never read someone writing (or attempting) someone else’s style, tone, story? I’ve read many authors trying to write King, Tolkien, or Heinlein. In my writer’s group, we have a McMillan, a Walker, and a Proulx. We also have a Shaara and a Crichton.

    At first everything I wrote was a poor (very poor) imitation of Herbert, Parker, and/or Ludlum. Sadly some never move beyond writing other people’s stories. But I’ve shot my mouth off on that topic before.

    Oh and you forgot the ones that don’t know what they want to write (or how) but they know they really want it to be a movie.

  11. 11. Doug Hulick

    S.C. – Good point. I think wanting to write is one thing, but a person needs to have an idea of what they want to attempt. Be it contemporary fiction, genre, historical romance, or whatever. And that can change. But there needs to be a plot, characters, conflict, a setting, and so on to carry to story. That’s what I was alluding to (poorly, I admit, due to my stumbling attempt to be clever) when I talked about knowing what they want to write. But, yeah, a lot of people don’t even get that far before they get discouraged.

    Being able to drive to work does not mean you are ready for Le Mans; being able to put pen to paper does not mean you are necessarily ready to put down a story from start to finish, either. However, I find a lot more people assume the latter to be possible, whle they would never consider the former.

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    FKassad – When it comes to real world stuff, you need to do your research. Otherwise the folks who know more than you do will catch you out, and should. But that doesn’t mean you have to go live there.

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    Doug – I thnk we’re on the same page here. And as for what you say about people who would never dream of driving at Lemans, but think they can write because they know how to use a keyboard, Publish America is taking advantage of them every day.


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Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.



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