23 January 2013 - 12:30 pm

Awesome liars

Look, a bar for writers!Photo by Thomas Hawk

Look, a bar for writers! That glass is almost big enough for me.
Photo by Thomas Hawk

There are a few common pieces of advice about writing that are deceptively simple and frequently misunderstood. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is one and I’ve already written about that; ‘write what you know’ is another, and this is what I’m going to talk about today.

Who cares what you know?

Why is it important? This feeds into the believability of your story. When you put your story out there, you’re asking a reader to suspend their disbelief. You’re asking them to trust you with their time and emotions. They want you to carry them away; they want to be lied to and to believe every lie you lay before them. But you’ve got to handle your reader’s faith responsibly if you’re going to keep it.

This means that you have to prove you know what you’re talking about. Errors, mistakes, and inconsistencies break that trust and damage the reader’s connection with your story. They throw the reader out and increase the likelihood of the story being put aside. As a reader, it’s frustrating and annoying when a story can’t get its own facts right. No-one likes to be played for a fool.

For example, you might have a character cocking the hammer on a Glock; or a horse throwing up; or a character being lightheaded after losing four litres of blood; or CPR reviving someone who has been dead for three hours. It doesn’t take an expert in these areas to know that Glocks don’t have cockable hammers; horses are physically incapable of vomiting; losing that much blood will pretty much kill you; and that dude is dead, stop sucking on his face.

Then there are the experts. You need to convince them you know what you’re talking about, too, and they’re going to be much pickier than your average reader (like a soldier reading war stories, or a cop reading a murder mystery).

So what does all this mean?

Live it before you write it?

Let’s start with the misconceptions: you can only write about things you have personal experience in; and you can only write about things that you have studied extensively and are an expert in.

If these were true, should writers start by listing out what they know and then deciding what kind of story they can write? Should characters never be able to pick up a gun because the writer has never held one before? Only have sex in one position because that’s the only one the writer has tried? Should a writer never step outside their own skull?

The short answer is ‘no’.

If those misconceptions were true, our fiction shelves would be narrow indeed. How does fantasy happen? Horror? Science fiction? Historical fiction? Erotica? How does a female write a male protagonist, or vice versa?

We know these stories exist – and can be done well – so how does that work? How can you write about things you haven’t or can’t have experienced personally?

Fake it

‘Write what you know’ is perhaps clearer if written the other way around: ‘know what you write’.

It’s about convincing your reader that you have personal experience in all of the things in your story. It’s about lying to them so well that they believe you thoroughly, including the experts in the subjects you’re writing about. It’s about being the best con artist you can.

So how do you do that? The first step is research and preparation, because if you don’t know something already, you can learn it. For example:

  • Want your character to travel by horse? Look up what that means: what food there will need to be; how far a horse can travel in a day; how much your size of horse can carry; how fast a fully-laden mount can go.
  • Want your character to use a weapon? There are plenty of resources available to give you information you can use to make the experience believable. Weight, ease of use for a novice, how an expert might handle it, and just what the weapon can (and can’t!) do.
  • Want there to be magic in your world? Figure out how it works, the rules and restrictions, and feed them into the story. Introduce logic to make the wondrous believable (this is where ‘internal logic’ is your friend).
  • Want to break existing rules? Convince your readers that you’re not breaking rules at all by explaining it. For example, a two-week journey between stars doesn’t make sense unless you make it clear that you’ve got FTL travel in your world.
    The examples above with the Glock and the horse could make sense if you explain how the usual conditions don’t apply. Blood loss can be survived using transfusions. Someone dead for three hours might be a necromancer taking a nap, but thanks for the smooches anyway.

Make the impossible logical, and your reader will accept it and move on.

Writers go to all kinds of lengths to make their work believable. You can research before (or while!) the story is written; getting expert input is another option, and fact-checking can be done after the work is complete, too. Just because you’re not an expert in a particular field doesn’t mean an expert can’t help to make it convincing!

There are all kinds of crazy resources out there for writers to play with: talk to people; search the internet; have a go at getting personal experience (for example, many law enforcement agencies allow ride-alongs). The FBI even has a liaison set up specifically to help writers do research into their agency.

For less real-world stuff, you have all kinds of things you can create to make your world make sense: maps; family trees; world and racial histories (think of the Silmarillion, which was Tolkien’s background material for Lord of the Rings), to name but a few.

Waving hands are allowed

All of this background material aside, ‘write what you know’ doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything. In fact, going too far in that direction can be counter-productive when it comes to believability. The more explanation and detail you put in about something – particularly when it comes to fantasy/scifi/speculative elements – the more you open yourself up to errors and faults in the logic that readers will pick up on.

For example, I once read a character description that tried to explain in detail how the character’s super-speed worked. It went into air resistance, friction, and the G-forces involved, and the more detail there was, the more it obviously violated the basic rules of physics and raised questions in the reader’s mind. If the writer had simply put ‘can travel at X speed and is not affected by air resistance, etc’, it wouldn’t have been a problem.

A certain amount of hand-waving or glossing is allowable; what you need to do is present enough information for the reader to be convinced that you know what you’re talking about. Sometimes, the information required is very light (‘they have an FTL drive’ can be enough; you don’t necessarily need to explain how it works). The reader wants to know you’re presenting a world that makes sense to them, and they’re willing to give you a lot of leeway in doing that.

Love the lies

Keep in mind that readers want to believe in you. They want to join you on this journey. You owe it to them to be awesome at it. Convince them by sounding like you know exactly what you’re writing about.

Be worthy of your readers’ trust. Con them, be the best liar you can. We’re in the business of selling people dreams and convincing them that they’re real, so dream loud and true.

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  1. Francisco says:

    Supplemental question: How do you know when you’ve researched enough? Or even, if you’re research in the right way?

    Say, for example, you are setting it in a particular period, the techology of that period is easy to establish but how do you grab hold of something as etheral as the culture of that period? How do you not fall into the trap of making your characters seem like other people’s stereotypes or modern people in fancy dress?

    January 24th, 2013 at 4:35 am

  2. Francisco says:

    Sorry, that should be: Or even, if you’re researching

    January 24th, 2013 at 4:36 am

  3. Mel says:

    Good question! It’s not easy to know how much is enough. This probably has the same answer as ‘How do I know if I’m being convincing?’ The easiest way to find out is to talk to people, get them to read your work and see if your work makes sense, if you’re falling into stereotypes, and all that kind of thing. Get feedback; it’s invaluable in these areas.

    For specific questions like culture, you can go to your local uni and see if you can talk to an expert in the area. Maybe drop them an email and see what they can do for you. Writers have success with this! Alternatively, have a browse through some (non-fiction) history books on the period. You could even do a search for stereotypes around the period to see if someone has some information up about that specific subject.

    As for how to know if you’ve researched enough… part of it is personal comfort (feeling like you know enough to write about it), and part of it is being aware of your procrastination tendency. If you’re getting bogged down in research and it’s delaying the actual writing part too much, maybe it’s better to put the fact-finding aside and just start writing. Remember: you can always fix mistakes up later!

    Also, getting into the writing might help to focus your research, as it will help highlight specific areas you need to focus on.

    Personally, I find doing all of the research up front can kill the enthusiasm for the story for me, so I tend to only do enough to get me started. That way, I know I’m heading in the right general direction. The rest I do along the way.

    January 24th, 2013 at 8:37 am

  4. Francisco says:

    Thank you for your advice and I will follow up on it.

    You can probably guess that these questions relate to a certain project of mine. 😉

    However, I do disagree on point. I don’t think we should neglect fictional sources of information. I agree that historical fiction is likely to be a bad source of information but contemporary fiction written at the time could be a good source of information. All art shows how a society views itself. Also, my characters would have access to that fiction.

    However, the big problem with that is that I physically canot read a book I don’t like (either fact or fiction but, especially, fiction) and what I like may not be what my characters like. It also increases your workload because you have more sources to choose from as I can’t skimp on the factual research.

    January 24th, 2013 at 4:05 pm

  5. Francisco says:

    Sorry, that should be “on one point”

    January 24th, 2013 at 4:05 pm

  6. Mel says:

    Very true about using fictional sources. However, if you’re going for realism (you mentioned historical culture) and wanting to avoid stereotypes, I’d suggest going to the reality as a resource. Doesn’t have to be your only one! But it might give you some perspective. Then, when you read the fiction, you might be able to see where the stereotypes and misconceptions are coming through. And that might give you the info you need to feed into your own work.

    Your work doesn’t have to be factually precise. Internal consistency is the thing to aim for, and how close that is to ‘real’ reality is completely up to you. Maybe the stereotypes completely work for what you’re doing. Maybe they annoy you so much you would like to ambush them in a dark alley. Gather your tools and use them well. 🙂

    (Also, I will be getting to your project soon, I promise! 🙂 )

    January 24th, 2013 at 4:25 pm

  7. Francisco says:

    True. Reading fiction for cultural information does entail making sure that you have enough factual information to back it up. However, your piece and this conversation has clarified helped my next step (so thank you for that).

    Don’t worry if you don’t have time.

    January 25th, 2013 at 3:22 am

  8. Mel says:

    I’ve got some time coming up soon. It’s all good! 🙂 And I’m glad this was helpful. Mission accomplished!

    January 25th, 2013 at 8:36 am