Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Write What You Know - but what does that mean??


Illinois sunset over a school play yard -LK HunsakerIn the process of research today, I was trying to find a specific type of establishment in NYC that would work for my story. Now, I've been to NYC briefly and plan to go back, but I don't have the option to run spend several days there just for story research. It would be nice, but let's face reality: when you have kids at home and a job and such and you aren't the owner of Trump Tower with a private jet, there are restrictions on doing such things.

Internet research wasn't working well. I had the look in my head for the place I needed but try putting that in a search engine. It didn't work well. Finally, I went to Yahoo Answers and asked people who would know: NYC residents. I answer lots of questions there about books and writing and sometimes other subjects, so I figured getting a touch of return help would be nice.

The first answer I received started by saying:  "The first rule of writing ... write what you know."

Hm. Yes, that's helpful. Thanks so much. He did also mention a name of a place that might work but I was rather annoyed at the inference that I didn't know what I was doing that I didn't bother to check the place. [Luckily, the second answer was exactly what I was looking for! He'll get 10 points for being not rude and very helpful.]

Write what you know. So he meant I shouldn't put my character in New York City since I don't know it well? Or that I should use only the places in the city I do personally know? I am using one, a small music venue I enjoyed, if it matters. I know the feel of the city enough for the story. I know enough that it needs to be mainly set in Manhattan instead of another borough. My main character is heavily into the music industry. Let's see, if I can only write about the places I've been long enough to write with any real detail about them, the story would have to be set in Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, Idaho, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Germany. None of those work real well for this character. Actually, none of them work at all. Yes, I set Rehearsal in MA but it worked for them. Or does that mean I can't write about a character in the music industry since I've never lived in any of the three big music industry spots in the US? Not to mention I've never been involved in the music industry itself. That's what research is for!

I'd like to tell this "top contributor" that writing what you know does not mean using only settings you know first hand. How limited would that make the literary world? What about historical fiction? Should no one write about time periods they didn't live in? How sad would it be to lose all those magnificent stories of the past?

Writing what you know is much deeper than that. It's writing the truths you've learned, the things you've seen, the thoughts you've had, and feelings you've felt. It's putting yourself IN your work and adding all those luscious true-to-life things that make books "real" instead of simply described. It doesn't mean write about your life as a memoir, which is okay also, but limiting. It means to take those things and turn them into fiction that echoes real life, that shares yourself and your experiences.

I write what I know. I have always studied people and families and relationships to watch what makes them work or not work. I make note of societal issues that stand out in my mind because maybe I have some valuable thoughts or ideas to share about them. I think things through. I know things. I see things happen and the effects of those happenings. I write about them. It's fiction, of course. I use them differently than they were in real life but the same -- the same concepts, the same issues, the same relationships. Or different relationships based on how things might have worked "if" only....

THAT is writing what you know. Is my story invalidated because I don't know which NYC restaurant has the look and location I need for a certain scene? I don't think so. The story is about love, loss, despair, hanging on, and letting go -- all things I do know first hand. If I was doing a documentary about NYC, then I would see his point. Otherwise, it's way off base. So is anyone else who tells a writer not to do a story in a place she's never been. That would throw out all sci fi and fantasy also, wouldn't it?

Write what you know INSIDE. Write what you FEEL. Write what matters to you, what you care about. Use details from your everyday life such as the moist breeze blowing against your cheek while standing on a beach, or the pounding, clacking noise of a nearby train station, or the way you feel when someone takes your hand and says it's going to be all right. Use that. Use your own reality. And put it anywhere in the world your character needs to be. The rest can be researched.



Dawn Wilson said...

I totally agree!! I like your new definition of the whole "write what you know" rule. We should not just write what we "know." As you said, literature would be so limited if we did. Great blog post!

Unknown said...

It's Bozos like that guy that give the rest of us native New Yorkers a bad name. Most New Yorkers are genuinely friendly and helpful.

Just a thought... could you have simply invented a place that fit your requirements? Or do you have to have verisimilitude?

Apologies to you from civil New Yorkers past and present.

Sarah said...

Write what you know... you are absolutely correct about writing about people and emotions and social interaction etc. As for settings - well, what about Google Earth? I've used it a few times, and found it really is great. I recently wrote an article about Oxford Street for Helium, and by using Google Earth was able to describes colours on the streets etc. Sure, I've been to Oxford Street, but only three times in my life.

I love your last paragraph - so true!

LK Hunsaker said...

Dawn, thank you. It's not really my definition, but what I've seen from writers I respect. I don't like definitions and rules that are taken much too literally or too narrow. It's in the interpretation.

Kenneth, I LOVED NYC when I visited and had no issues with rudeness. Thank you for the apology but I never, ever judge a whole group/city from one person. As far as making up a place, I do that at times, but I like using real places in my books because they are very reality based and it feeds that.

Sarah, I used to have Google Earth before the crash. I need to reload it! Nice to see you here. :-)

Mona Risk said...

Write what you know, yes, but research what you don't know and write about it anyway, exactly as you are doing. I wrote medical scenes based on thorough research.

Unknown said...

How interesting--this morning on Skhye's blog, she asked--to win a $50 gift certificate--what is your best writing tip? She already had 20 replies, so I added mine--know what it was? "Write what you know, and use what you know." (forgive the grammar.) Now, I mean that to a certain extent, so I stick to the southwest and Texas in particular--even Historical. Still, I need to do research.But I know better than to set a story in Orlando or Baltimore.
You made some excellent points--I'll re-read it now. Celia

Pat McDermott said...

If a writer can't quite describe a scene he or she is trying to visualize, help is at hand. The internet can take us right inside hotel rooms and restaurants. Travel guides can describe nearly every country, city, or town. Cookbooks can help with cuisine, and children's science books can decipher the mysteries of the universe so mere mortals can understand them. No creative person needs restrictions placed on their imaginations. Ignore the rules. Write what you love!

LK Hunsaker said...

Mona, exactly! If you research well enough, then you know.

Celia, great minds. ;-) I'm running behind but I'll check your post, too. One thing about all the traveling I've done, I at least have a feel for a lot of areas and so combining that with research works fine.

Pat, yes, I have travel books, also. They were a big help in writing my Scotland scenes before I got to go see it myself! Cookbooks, good idea.