Thoughts on Writing
#07: Write What You...Hell, No.
by Seanan McGuire
One of the first things most of us learn in classes on writing -- even
high school-level English classes -- is 'write what you know.' We hear
it from teachers, we hear it from other writers, we hear it from people
who just want to help. 'Write what you know.' Well, here's my thought
on the topic:
The phrase 'write what you know' is innately
flawed. I don't know what it's like to be a changeling detective
working the mean streets of San Francisco, or a hard-boiled journalist
with a crazy twin brother, or a teenage lycanthrope with a serial
killer problem. Write what you're willing to know. Everything will
begin with a kernel of pre-existing knowledge -- I know folklore
(Toby), zombies and blogging (Georgia), and coyotes and high school
(Clady) -- and expand into a fabulous orgy of learning. Toby taught me
San Francisco history and lots of ways to kill people. Georgia taught
me virology and plagues. Clady taught me about snack foods. If you're
not willing to write anything but what you already know, you're going
to be restricted to autobiography, non-fiction, and writing the same
plot ten thousand times. And that's just not fun.
it's pretty clear that I don't actually believe in 'write what you
know.' So what does that mean? This time we're talking about writing
what you know, writing what you're willing to know, and writing what
Hang On -- How Can I
Avoid Writing What I Know?
Short answer: you can't.
answer: we all write what we know, all the time. We write in the
language that we know. We write in the grammar that we know. We write
in the patterns and cadences that we know. We write according to the
customs of our time, and for every writer who's 'ahead of his time,'
there are twenty influences proving that he's actually a product
of his time. One of the basic arguments of the 'Shakespeare didn't
write his own plays' camp -- a fight that we won't be getting into
here, thanks -- holds that a butcher's boy from Stratford couldn't
possibly have told those stories, because he wouldn't have been writing
what he knows.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with
writing what you know. We learn certain things out of necessity, like
how to put on shoes, or why we shouldn't lick the hallucinogenic toads.
I enjoy writing what I know, because most of the things I know are
things that I feel comfortable with, and my range of hobbies and
interests means that I am fully capable of writing some really weird
shit while still writing only and entirely what I know. The only way to
completely avoid writing what you know is to become a surrealist or a
very, very fringe magical realist, and even then, you're going to have
difficulty keeping what you know entirely out of the text. So yes, you are
going to write what you know. Neither I nor anyone else can tell you
here's the thing. A lot of the time, the phrase 'write what you know'
is presented as if it were a closed statement, like 'you can have one
cookie' or 'you will die if you stick your head inside the shark.'
There's no wiggle room in 'write what you know' when it's presented
like that. You are expected to write what you know, only what you know,
and exclusively what you know. Used like this,
'write what you
know' becomes a commandment against speculative fiction and a a
justification for refusing to ever write characters not of your own
age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. Anything else,
after all, would be a failure to write what you know. That's a bit of a
Now, please understand: writing what you know is a
powerful thing, and I recommend that everyone who wants to write learn
how to do it, and do it well. Write essays and study essays by writers
you admire. Read non-fiction to see how the information is presented,
read memoirs to see how people detail their own lives, and read
mainstream fiction written by people who specialize in writing what
they know. Learning how to describe your own life and your own
experience will make you better at describing the lives and experiences
of others. But it's not the end of the journey.
So What Are You Recommending?
Write what you're willing
to know. I view every book as an excuse to go out and learn something
new. Oh, sure, I'll write short stories entirely from reserves of
existing knowledge, but books are a chance to get out there and find
something out. Beyond the part where I don't actually know what it's
like to be any of my characters -- and I'm glad of that fact, since my
characters experience severe physical trauma with dismaying regularity
-- I also don't know the things they have to know in order to survive
Writing Rosemary and Rue required me to do a
lot of research on folklore, San Francisco geography, gunshot wounds,
basic forensic techniques, and California flora. Some of these things
were a surprise, as I really didn't think my fairy tale noir murder
mystery was going to require knowing how to identify common bits of
shrubbery, but the research was required. Some of these things were
totally expected and understood from the gate. All told, I probably put
hundreds of hours of basically invisible research into this book. Were
they necessary? Yes. Will anyone ever know how many books of Scottish
fairy tales I read to get the throwaway details right? Probably not.
Does that matter? No.
When I started Newsflesh, I was
embarking on a literary adventure where almost none of the checkpoints
were familiar ones. Politics? Nope. Blogging culture? Not so much. The
actual mechanics of how guns work? Yeah, no. I can keep going, but you
probably get the idea. So what made me feel like I could write this
book? Well, I knew zombies, I knew how pandemics work, and I knew
characters. I was pretty sure I could learn the rest as I went along.
Being willing to do the research made the research possible.
of these books could have been written if I insisted on writing only
what I know, because both required a measure of research and expansion
of my comfort zones. About the only book I've ever written that could
have happened with me writing only what I know was Chasing
which contains large swaths of fictionalized events from my various
trips to the United Kingdom. You can argue that by expanding 'what I
know' to include research done to support speculative fiction, I can
now justify writing sequels to anything I've already researched, but
that's not actually the case: The Mourning Edition
me to take several virology classes and arrange for field trips to a
firing range so that I can learn more about what it's like to fire a
Learning is awesome, and research is wonderful. Especially
since being a writer means you can get away with researching
practically anything that doesn't bring you to the attention of
Homeland Security. I'm quite serious here -- 'I'm writing a book' is
like a golden ticket to the realms of anything you've ever wanted to
know but were afraid to ask about. I've seen autopsies, grilled
virologists, had long conversations with people from the CDC, been
allowed to tour train yards, and gotten a bus driver to take a
three-mile detour on his way back to the depot so he could show me
where I should set an action sequence. Not everyone is willing to take
the time to explain themselves to an author, but it really is like some
sort of incantation. 'I'm writing a book,' and the doors of the world
Note that it's not always important to have a deep
knowledge of what you're writing about: that's what consultants and
subject-matter experts are for. I have readers who check my text for a
variety of potential issues, ranging from 'poison sumac doesn't grow
there' to 'that isn't what that drug does.' There's only so much room
in the average brain, and as an author, you need to know how to string
words together in a useful and functional manner more than you need to
know how to field-strip an AK-47. Learn how to listen, and learn how to
learn, and the need to write only what you know will become a distant
So I Don't Need To Study? Great!
I didn't say that. The less you know about a topic, the more you need
to study it, and the more carefully you need to have your sources
checked. I can talk about San Francisco with the calm confidence of
someone who gets lost in the city on a monthly basis. I can't say the
same about Manhattan, or Sacramento. This means that people tend to
assume that mistakes in my San Francisco geography are either a)
intentional, or b) proof that I have suffered a severe head injury.
Either way, they're pretty nice about it. When I make mistakes in the
geography of other cities, however, I'm likely to get jumped on hard,
because it's clear that I didn't do my research. 'I did it on purpose'
is only a viable defense when you know what you're talking about.
old axiom 'you have to know the rules before you break them' applies to
what you write about just as much as it applies to the way you write.
Research is one of your greatest tools; experience is another. Rather
than completely denying either one, work to find a balance between the
two. Write what you know, and write what you're willing to learn, and I
think you'll find that you're a stronger and more flexible author for
having made the effort.
© 2009 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in September of 2009.
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