Saturday, April 20, 2013

Those Who Think They Know Everything Annoy Those of Us Who Do

Nothing pulls a reader out of a story like inaccurate facts. Or, even worse, coming to a scene and thinking, “That would never happen that way.”

We’ve all heard it before. Write what you know. It’s definitely true. No one wants to read a story by someone who doesn’t have their facts straight, but new knowledge is always easy to attain, especially with the internet. With a few clicks on the keyboard, a writer can find all there is to know about just about any subject.

But there are certain things that can only be learned through life experience. Now, I think that writers as a whole are a more empathetic group than most. We have to really get inside our characters’ heads and see everything through their eyes, but without having similar experiences in our own lives that we can compare them to, how can we put that emotional aspect in our writing?

A book about the basics of cattle ranching might be interesting to some, and written by someone who’s actually worked on a cattle ranch would be much more informative. But it would read like a textbook to me. I want strong characters, and turmoil in those characters’ lives. And I want to know how they react to that turmoil.

Rancher Bob is about to lose everything to the nasty new banker. I know, totally cliché, but I'm feeling lazy. So, we could go over all the technical aspects of that situation—posted notices about foreclosure, lawyer involvement, all the things Bob does to try to keep the ranch—but without getting Bob’s emotional reactions, and all the anger, frustration, and despair involved in a situation like that, the story, in my opinion, would be pretty boring.

And that is what I interpret write what you know to mean. It’s drawing on your own life experience to make your characters believable and their experiences believable. And being able to give the reader something to connect to in that character, to keep them reading. That’s the ultimate goal, right? To have our words read and appreciated, and our characters loved by others as much as we love them?

So, I’m wondering. What do you all think? Should write what you know be taken to mean just factual knowledge, or is there more to it than that?


Anonymous said...

I think you nailed it. "Write what you know" is kind of a lame, vague admonition. The heart behind it is, I believe, to write what interests you--what you personally find appealing & engaging. That passion and respect for a topic will shine through via your writing. Your specific thoughts and knowledge can spread out to both entertain & educate others. The best books do that. Also, I agree, the emotions attached to "what you know" are more important than mere facts.

LinWash said...

I agree with johnlucashargis. A writer can do his or her homework and try to ensure accuracy. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. So I agree that you have to draw on your own strengths or weaknesses as you develop your characters. Characters need a believable interior life.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

One thing I think is funny is that sometimes things that happen in real life would be unbelievable included in a novel. Like when you have coincidences pile onto coincidences and it genuinely happened that way, but if you inserted that into a story intact it would not be believable. That's definitely when you need to use it as inspiration rather than a primary source.

Krista McLaughlin said...

I think you can do your research to correctly depict a scene, but writing what you know definitely is more comfortable and you can sense the passion from the writer. Yes, it can be frustrating! I was reading a scene in a book where the MC dislocated his shoulder, had it popped in with little pain, and then was climbing a tree with no pain a page later. Umm... I've never dislocated a shoulder, but I'm pretty sure it really hurts and remains sensitive and painful. Oops - that author needed a little more research or experience.

Kell Andrews said...

Great post -- I just did an event with some students, and when it came time for questions, one of the teachers asked about this -- why truth matters in fiction.