Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
December 2022/January 2023
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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.

I think 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 you learn.

Let's begin.

Hang On -- How Can I Avoid Writing What I Know?

Short answer: you can't.

Longer 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 not to.

But 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 problem.

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 their days.

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.

Neither 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 St. Margaret, 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 is requiring 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 gun.

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 swing open.

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 memory.

So I Don't Need To Study? Great!

Hang on, 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.

The 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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