You know stuff, use it

Craig here today. I’ve said many times that the rules of writing fiction are more guidelines. I was struck recently with how many novels feature a main character who is an author. Therefore:

Today’s topic is, “Write What you Know.”

Okay, I just said they’re more like guidelines, so if you want a main character who’s an author, have at it. You should think of why they are an author, and make it fit the story if you can. Do they need to work from home? Could they be a software engineer instead? Maybe an inventor, a masseuse, a drug dealer?

Sometimes we choose our characters because they need to be a front line type. They’re going to encounter a body somewhere along the line, and if they’re solving the mystery it makes more sense to make them a front line type. Front line type = cop, firefighter, reporter, coroner, soldier, attorney, doctor, etc.

This stuck with me for a long time, but I don’t think it’s what they mean by the advice. The fact is that you know stuff. This is an opinion piece about what “Write What you Know,” really means.

The Story Empire crew just finished our roadshow blog tour. During that tour, we learned about one author who saw a ghost, and another who saw a UFO. Each of those events made it into their book. Deep down inside, they know how the event made them feel. When this gets on the page, it’s golden. I might imagine how it made them feel, but their fiction is based upon actual feelings. When something shocks us, we tend to remember the smells, sounds, temperature, and other things surrounding the event. That should go on the page too.

We all have memories, and much of what we remember is unique. Those feelings, smells, textures, and more can improve your story.

Let me give you some examples from my memory. When I was a young man, I worked two summers out of a tent camp staking mining claims. In the early days, the law required seven 4X4 wooden posts to make a claim. We were surveyors, and whenever we could pawn off the digging job, we did. The mining company hired two diggers for us.

One of these guys didn’t talk much. He wore a cowboy hat, and drove a hand painted pickup truck. It looked like he used a brush to paint it a unique shade of green. Then he hand painted a horse head just in front of the door hinge (poorly, I might add). His partner didn’t speak at all, not once that I ever remember – in two years. I took to calling him Dig, and the name stuck.

Can you see these characters showing up some day in one of my stories? Maybe they’re living off the grid, hiding from the law, maybe they’re just goofy cowboys who got outsourced by four-wheelers and better cow dogs.

During these same summers, we worked six days per week. We usually stopped about 5:00 on Saturdays and went home. We had to do our laundry and whatnot. Every Thursday, we got to take the work truck to Thousand Springs. This was a roadside bar, cafe, and gas pump. I remember they had a wall of new Stetson hats for sale. Sadly, Thousand Springs burned to the ground about five years later and they never rebuilt.

We used to shoot pool, drink a beer or two (at seventeen), and stand in line for the payphone. All of us used to wait with crumpled papers containing phone numbers in an attempt to get a date for Saturday night. Sometimes the first caller got the girl you wanted, and you had to try someone else. This is kind of a unique memory, and might make for a good story element.

Since I’m stuck on 76, 77, and part of 78, I might as well stick with it. This was small town America. All of us were either family, or we’d known each other since kindergarten. My dad owned the company, so he asked me to find boys who wanted to work. That’s how we got to spend the summers together, and earn some decent money.

One of those summers, we hired a kind of goofy cousin. Instead of going home for laundry, he and his dad decided to work Saturday night until Monday morning staking their own claims. That was the last week he worked for us. Can you see this becoming a story element at some time? It wouldn’t have to be mining, it could be all kinds of things including intellectual property.

There was even a kind of range war that made national news at one time. The mining interest moved onto private property, and that rancher did not own the mineral rights. This led to cowboys on horses – with rifles, facing deputy sheriffs in riot gear, plus one BIA agent – because he had Federal authority. The rest of us… we had to stand down while the powers that be sorted it all out. My survey friends all went to school with with the ranch kids. (One of whom was a total babe.) We had a picnic under the trees and talked about the pending football season. Two of the ranch boys were football players, and so were two of my friends. I remember how good the shade felt, the dust, the distant sound of radio chatter, how silly the BIA agent thought the deputies were in their riot gear.

This got kind of long winded, and it isn’t to make you think I’m unique. You’re unique too. We learned about Mae’s UFO and Joan’s ghost. You have unique memories too, and they can really enhance your writing. Since this is an opinion piece, I’m going to stick my neck out there. Don’t settle for the low hanging fruit, reach a bit higher and write what you know. (Oh, and my first two novels featured a main character who was a writer. Never fear, they’re trunk novels and I won’t be sharing them with the world.)

While the post didn’t go that direction, there are common experiences you can draw on too. First kiss, rejection, car wreck, Christmas, etc. I won’t take time to detail those experiences, but they fit this topic too. So let me hear from you. This is an opinion piece, and you have the right to disagree – politely. Maybe you see this as slightly different than I do. Is there something deep in your memory that could enhance your fiction? Let’s hear about it.

C. S. Boyack

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34 thoughts on “You know stuff, use it

  1. Ah, Craig, I have been looking out for this post. I am pleased to read that you and I agree on this topic. I also think it make sense to write what you know in the way you have described. Gives the writing an authentic feel. This, of course, is coming from a lady who writes stories about a chocolate man who lives in a world where you can eat everything [smile].

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very true, Craig – writers draw on their own experiences or those shared by others, and observe the people around them. I’ve come across some eccentric characters that may turn up in future books.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This reminds me of something romance writers deal with a lot. We’re often asked if the love scenes come from personal experience. And we all (I think all of us) decline to answer that, but instead counter with something like this: Do you ask murder mystery writers if they create such realistic serial killers from personal experience?

    Yes, writing what you know does make life easier. But someone once gave the advice, “Write what you WANT to know.” And that’s what I have done with respect to careers for my characters. Partly because I enjoy research. But mostly, I’m already a writer, so I know how a writer’s job plays out. I like to explore other vocations, so I write about those professions and get to live vicariously through my characters.

    I use my life experiences to fill in other details, most recently cooking and martial arts. It’s nice to fill in the story with stuff that both means something to me and doesn’t require research.

    Love the post today, Craig. Gives us all something to think about.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. So true, Craig, all of it! You’re right about the bits and pieces from our own lives that we can sprinkle into our fiction to give it that little extra dose of “real”. And the flip side of it, writing what you don’t know, means research, which has a fun component of its own. Sue Coletta even went so far as to stuff herself into an oil drum to find out what it felt like. (http://www.suecoletta.com/my-time-inside-an-oil-drum/) Thanks for the great post!

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  5. Reblogged this on Entertaining Stories and commented:

    I’m just getting started from my hotel in Louisville. I have the post over at Story Empire today. Drop in and discuss writing what you know. I’ll try to respond to comments between sessions today. It will probably be over my phone, so expect autocorrect errors.

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  6. Great post, Craig, and I agree about using what you know in your fictional work. And, of course, this isn’t to the exclusion of researching what you don’t know. I’ve used both approaches in my writing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Seems to be a struggling author in stories too. So, a struggling drug dealer who dreams of making it big? There has to be something like that out there. 😀

    ‘Write what you know’ has been a bane to my existence along with ‘show, don’t tell’. Many people seem to hurl these two out like gospel without explaining what they mean or how it relates. I agree with what you’re saying that the former works better if you take it as working off your memories instead of your knowledge. Both are important, but people seem to take this phrase as ‘you are not allowed to write about anything you have not mastered or researched heavily’. Works for more reality-based fiction and non-fiction, but it gets screwy with fantasy. I’ve never gone griffin-riding or dragon-slaying, so I can’t write about my experience with that.

    In terms of my genre, I take ‘write what you know’ as working more off imagination and staying consistent with the rules that I made. There’s the mundane stuff like relationships, weaponry, combat, etc., but those haven’t been the targets when somebody uses this phrase against me. It stems more from what a person perceives as the traditions of fantasy. There’s this expectation that a fantasy author has read all of the popular ones and is working off of those systems. For example, Game of Thrones is a low magic world while Windemere is a high magic world. I’ve had readers tell me that I’m wrong for having magic everywhere because that isn’t how fantasy goes now. They have said that I should read more modern books to understand my genre. The words ‘write with you know’ don’t always come up, but this is the same vein. It’s kind of funny since it shows we all have different levels of expertise, knowledge, and experience that we feel is necessary for an author. Yet, the truth is that it’s up to the individual to create those markers.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I disagree with those who advised you. Even the murder authors have likely never been murdered or killed someone. I’ll bet they’ve been somewhere that made them feel creepy though, and can weave that into the tale. Part of writing speculative fiction is being able to have it your way. High magic, low magic, good aliens, bad aliens, etc. If someone never tried something different, we’d never have anything new. You may have never been in a sword fight or cast a spell, but you may have ridden a horse and can remember how that feels. You may have worn some scratchy woolen clothes, like most eras of fantasy.

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      • I disagree with them too. Though, I wasn’t as diplomatic as that with a few of them. :/

        I wonder how easy murder authors have it. We all have that fear of death or at least thoughts on it. Not to mention we are exposed to shows and movies that touch on murder all the time. So one could say that everyone has a basic knowledge and emotion in connection to the act. I mean, it isn’t like we’re wanting for cop/crime dramas. Also, most people have lost someone, so they have experience with grief and mourning. This comes up a lot in those stories. So it’s definitely personal experiences opening the door for extrapolation or whatever word I should use.

        I did fencing, so I’ve got the sword fight down to some extent. Let’s not get into the horse thing though. My experience is demonstrated by Nyx and her distrust of the stubborn beasts. It’s funny that you mention the clothes because I didn’t make them scratchy and uncomfortable in Windemere. There are more modern fabrics around because I figure people would try to make things more comfortable. It’s always strange that fantasy worlds are locked in medieval Europe with no variations for centuries. It’s like the desire to advance and gain some comfort with or without magic is removed from all of society. In a way, this takes away from ‘write what you know’ in terms of knowledge.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Some of that is because readers like it. They think it was a simpler time, even though it wasn’t. Disease was rampant, and the times were brutal. One of the joys of being independent is the ability to try new things in public. I’ve seen elves in space, and other mashups. Not everyone will get it, buteven traditional publishing doesn’t suit every reader. Oh, and you have to remember that all those crime dramas are competition to that market as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m thinking Middle Earth and other earlier fantasy stories taking the physical appearance of that time period is another factor. Later authors added more of the nuances from the time period because that was what fit from a historical standpoint. So there’s this push to be unique, but also use parts of the medieval period to bring certain levels of familiarity to the story. Readers do seem to want something tangible to some extent. I need to find that elves in space one because I think I’ve heard of it before. Why is it always elves?

        Easy to forget that the crime dramas are competing with each other. Seems like they’re so many and they all connect to some big franchise.

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  8. Absolutely true, Craig. Thanks for the great post and for a glimpse into your life experience.It’s so much easier to write about things familiar with us. My novels include slices of my life and life of people around me. Things I lived, I read, I experienced one way or another. For what we don’t know we have, thank God, the internet with its huge network of information, though they must be treated carefully.( And oh, how I envy – in a positive way_ Joan and Mae for their first hand encounters!)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks for the journey down memory lane. I enjoyed it and remember how small town life was in the mid-seventies. I agree about using life’s experiences in our writing (but you would know that with my ghost.) The adage “truth is stranger than fiction” is often true, so why not use it in our stories. Great post, Craig. (Shared on my blog.)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: You know stuff, use it | Story Empire – Joan Hall

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