Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Hey wordsmiths, remember, always write what you know." Oh, yeah? What if you're a boring dumbass?

Just as with "less is more" the old chestnut "write what you know" is not in and of itself bad advice. But when we reduce these old adages to bumper sticker slogans without thinking about them, we often end up needlessly limiting ourselves as writers. In a world where lawyers and reporters and ex-military guys are writing thrillers in which the protagonists are lawyers and reporters and ex-military guys, new writers often maybe feel it is their destiny to mine their own lives for the bits and pieces they will cobble together for a work of fiction. Good. You should. It's a rich mine. But it's also a dark hole, and you don't want to get stuck down there.

Don't misunderstand. If you have experience in a combat zone in Afghanistan, then you probably have some great material at your fingertips. Hi-powered litigators probably have some cool stories to tell. But if Gischler were to "write what he knows" you would soon be the victim of a novel about a comic book writer sitting in front of his computer all day who may or may not be in his boxer shorts, sipping his 4th cup of coffee who then watches his wife play Sykrim on the X-Box in the evening after his 8 year old son goes to bed. This novel would be described as the exact opposite of riveting.

Writers too often reduce this advice to simplistic thinking along the lines of "I've never been to Mongolia, so I can't set my novel there." Bullshit. Anthony Neil's Smiths great novel ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS is partially set in Somalia. He's never set foot in the place, but it reads as authentic as anything.

And Smith's novel is also partially set in Minnesota where he lives and works. That's because Smith knows "write what you know" is a tool ... not a fallback position. He used what he knows for part of the setting of his novel but didn't let himself be limited. Writers cannot allow themselves to be trapped in their own back yards.

Part of the way to tackle the problem is simply to KNOW MORE. It should be part of every writer's mission statement to fling themselves out into the world and soak up as much of it as possible. Trust me, these experiences will find a way sooner or later back into your fiction.

And lastly, "write what you know" comes down to attitude. In a student's work, I can often tell when they are faking it. Hear this: IT IS OKAY TO FAKE IT ... AS LONG AS YOU DON'T GET CAUGHT. And when you start faking it in a half-hearted way, if you haven't done your research, if your tentative and apologetic, it will show. Every time. But your best bet is not having to fake it. Tap into yourself. If you know what it's like to feel joy or loss or terror, then grab those feelings with both hands and drag them to your characters. Knowing YOURSELF is the best way to "write what you know."

If you've been telling yourself "write what you know" keep in mind it's NOT bad advice. Not really. But it's not necessarily bad to write what you DON'T know either. "Write what you know" should never be an excuse to cop out of exploring, innovating and discovering.

I mean, how hard is a Google search? It's a start. Educate yourself. Put one big toe outside that comfort zone.

Good luck.


Dean Stell said...

Hey Victor....I'd agree with you. I think writers can write about things they don't know that well. The one thing I'd add to the "faking it" section is to be careful of hard facts because there will be readers who actually know those hard facts and seeing that the author is "making stuff up" kinda pops the bubble.

I had the experience recently reading a book that had a LOT of incorrect facts about a few topics I know a lot about (cars, guns, horses) and it was frustrating not just because the facts were wrong, but because the incorrect details wouldn't have added to the story even if they were correct. If you don't know about lot about cars or don't want to Google it, don't call a vehicle an "2008 Cadillac Escalade with a 6.2 liter engine producing 402 horsepower"....just call it a "big SUV with a powerful V8 engine".

Anyhow...enjoy your blog, as always.

Victor Gischler said...

Thanks, Dean.

I agree. Faking it works ... if you don't get caught. And proper research helps you not get caught.

bobbys said...

Hey Gisch-

Great to hear this. I'm an aspiring writer who lives a humdrum suburban life. I've been toying with the idea of writing a crime novel for many years, but have always stopped myself because I haven't really committed any lawless acts. Well, I ran a just-turned red light a few weeks ago. But that probably wouldn't be interesting to anyone.

So, yeah. I take your post as encouragement.


Christopher Black said...

In my head there's a clear line between invention and just making shit up. In All The Young Warriors there is invention, and the author inserts himself to give it authenticity. You can always tell when someone is making shit up. It doesn't even feel as if it could be true.

Victor Gischler said...


Agreed. But I think some timid writers use "write what you know" as an excuse to cop out of invention. "Write what you know" shoudl be a tool, not a limitation.

Gary A. Carson said...

Thanks for exploding this tired old cliche. "Write what you know" is the kind of thing I used to hear in Freshman writer's workshops. I thought it was meaningless back then and I think it's meaningless now.

Victor Gischler said...


To be honest, I wouldn't go as far as to say it's meaningless.

It just isn't the end all be all of writing advice and is too often taken the wrong way.

Let's say semi-meaningless.

Bryon Quertermous said...

I agree with this one a zillion percent. One of the reasons I started writing when I was younger was because I had an overactive imagination that my real life couldn't pretend to compete with. My first story was about superhero candy bars. I wasn't even allowed to eat candy bars.

Just yesterday when I was writing I spent a bunch of time online trying to find a historical link between wedding dresses and baseball to develop one of my baddies and I couldn't find anything. So I made something up.

Graham Powell said...

If I wrote what I know, then my magnum opus would be "The Cubicle-Dwelling Computer Guy's Guide To Love And Adventure". And somehow I can't see that raking in the big bucks.

Anonymous said...

It comes down to research. Always the research.


Zephyr -- a superhero webcomic in prose

Victor Gischler said...


Research. And experience.

John DuMond said...

Great post, Victor. I'm a reader of both fiction and nonfiction. When I'm reading fiction, my primary goal is to be entertained.

Research is important, as too many inaccuracies make it harder for a reader to suspend disbelief, which hinders their enjoyment of the story. But over-researching--and including too much technical detail--can have the same effect. This is why I gave up on Tom Clancy. He can weave an exciting tale, but his stories began to get bogged down in technical detail. I'm really not that interested in learning how to build an atomic bomb in my garage.