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How to Write What You Know

How to Write What You Know


Someone said, "The world is not made of atoms. It is made of stories." Even an atom has a tale to tell. You might ask yourself why you want to be a writer but as you settle down with such wonderful new tools for writers as computers, printers, copiers, and e-mail, it is helpful to create your fiction stories in the soft, easy-chair role of observer or watcher.

You might seek in your writing, and it is often best, to choose to work as a specialist, say, in science-fiction, crime, horror, courtroom, sword-and-fantasy, and all the rest. By investing your talents to pass through a narrower door, you can improve your skills more specifically to the needs and standards of your genre. It might take a while at first to find the genre you really like, and this applies not just to the type of story but to the type or form your stories will take, such as books, novels, stage plays, television or film stories, and so on. With all of these, your knack for observation of real life, your sense of people, places, and things, and your notions about how even minor human events play out will serve you well in the task of creating those fictions that seem real and are enjoyable for audiences, etc. The observer's role is therefore now your stock in trade as a writer.

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One great thing about doing this habitually is that it is really a good deal of fun. Whether you are a people-watcher, social critic, political watchdog, or even a Buddhist-style observer of nature in a tree or a plant, you can develop personally and reap great rewards and a storehouse of useful tidbits for your writing by simply cultivating the natural role of someone who is constantly checking things out. The common wisdom when asked, "What do I write about?" is to write what you know. However, you can expand this to include all life, all things happening, and all known matters and topics. In this way, you will fly high above the mundane and trite every time you sit down to compose.

They say, "Write about what you know," because young or novice authors can get stuck on where to begin in the seemingly impossible task of chipping away that first chunk of stone, however tiny, that makes up the giant castle of subjects about which to write. Can I write about being a jet airline pilot, and what that is like? Can I write about the life of a squid beneath the ocean, and all of that interesting stuff? Can I write about sexually erotic adventures with wild abandon? In any case, the writer who knows a bit about his subject matter is a lot better off than the complete innocent. Many writers simply will not venture forth into areas they are completely unfamiliar with. A very determined writer may tackle just about anything, thinking he or she can research and learn what is needed. But knowledge in today's world can be so esoteric that a meat-and-potatoes writer will not want to write a fictional book about the life of a highly trained brain surgeon and his or her challenges and accomplishments because he does not know anything about it. The details of the story would be open to harsh criticism if the writer just wings it and makes it all up. So, it is true, even in fiction,  that the best course is to write what you know.

And in this way, of course, the writer-as-citizen can appear almost anywhere in the world, under any circumstances, from any family, at any level of academic achievement, and do just fine, right up there with the big boys. We see this all the time: Some of the world's best modern writers had very humble beginnings. A lot of writers start out writing about their families and acquaintances, or their own lives, things they have experienced or that they have seen happening. In the long run, what else is there? You build from there, until you may have written a million words and never left the small farm town you grew up in. And in a way, that small farm town will never be the same because you were there at your keyboard, giving it a life it never suspected, a different view of real things and behavior, people and characters, filtered through a particular artist's thoughts, and rendered into a book or play, preserved as part of art history. This can apply to some pretty humble little dirt-road towns or the biggest city in the world, and any number of writers can provide the same for any number of towns and cities.

More than this, though, the wide world at large, maybe experienced through television and books or films, is your classroom to learn all those things you need to know to write about all sorts of things you might wish to convey as stories. You are an observer of life; you take it all in, maybe make a few notes, and you try to learn and then re-synthesize all you see and hear into sensible, realistic, and intuitive fictionality. You have to do this because your story about that submarine captain, or a flight to the moon, or even a dragon that hassles a small kingdom in the Middle Ages will lack authenticity, relative to your ignorance. That lack shows and readers catch it every time and see right through attempts to fake it. There really is nothing you can write about or observe and learn that cannot be known to others, as in the Beatles' song, "All You Need Is Love,' with the lyric, "Nothing you can know that can't be known." That is a good thing because to be quite so original as to leave the bounds of Earth or common truth is not always the best for your mental health.

One rule is objectivity: You do not set out to observe life with a lot of preconceived notions, an agenda, or mission, or really even to change things. To do so is to taint your observations, such as a Ku Klux Klansman trying to write about race relations in his hometown in the South, which is not exactly free of illusions to get the reality of things. In this way, you also learn about and observe yourself, another reason why writing is self-discovery. No one is free of all illusions; but if you find yourself highly critical of an overweight woman walking down the sidewalk with an ice cream cone, or very upset about what you observe to be understandable about today's freeway traffic, or maybe weeping like a baby when you observe a news story about a dog that was hit by a truck, those feelings might indicate a lack of objectivity. Truth is your guide; cling closely, and it will teach you.

As soon as you seriously start out to write about what you know, your first discovery is that you really do not know much. That can be a great relief, with so much to discover and share and the world your slimy, greasy-gray oyster, making yourself rich telling people what you see and how you see it.
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