Write what you know

While most of us are locked in our homes trying to fill the time we used to use for a thing called "work", maybe more of us should try writing.  It doesn't cost anything, can take a lot of otherwise boring time, and it can be fun.

Writing erotica is fun, but like everything else worthwhile, it’s also work.  That work becomes harder when we try to write about a subject or situation with which we’re not familiar.  Since we don’t know how things really are, we try to make stuff up or write what we think or hope might happen.

There’s nothing wrong with making stuff up or writing our fantasies.  Both are a major part of all fiction.  The problem rears its ugly head when we realize our made up scenarios and fantasies don’t ring true.  The reason is we don’t know enough about our subject to write something plausible.  Writing about things we know is a lot easier and makes for better writing.

A quote that illustrates this is from Flannery O’Connor.  It’s worth a little time on Wikipedia to learn about Flannery.  She was a writer who had a short but illustrious career.  Understanding her background and her writing goes a long way toward understanding this quote.

"I write to discover what I know."

Flannery wrote fiction, but she wrote fiction in the context of what she knew or learned through living.  That’s why her work received acclaim.  Even though it was fiction, it seemed real because she had an intimate knowledge of her subject matter.

It doesn’t matter if you’re eighteen or eighty, you have experienced enough of life to write about it.  Age does give the writer more depth of experience, but remember that most of the really important stuff we learn, we learn long before we’re eighteen.  It’s in our early years we learn about who we really are, how to interact with other people, and how to tell the good guys from the bad guys.  

Along the way we make mistakes, and we make a lot of them.  That’s how we learn.  Nobody ever learns anything from what they do right the first time.  It’s those screw-ups that force us to analyze what happened and figure out how to not do that again.  It’s also those screw-ups that make for good stories.  The writer is intimately familiar with what happened, why, and the eventual outcome so it’s fairly easy to write about them.   Readers will like the story because they can identify with those screw-ups.  They’ve made them too.

We can successfully write about things with which we have little or no experience.  Writers for science fiction make a career out of doing so.  They would stave to death if they confined their stories to what they’ve already leaned.  How do they do it?

Writers of science fiction do have the ability to imagine things most of us would never think about, but that imagination is only the smoke from the fire kindled from experience and fueled by research.  Science fiction is chock-full of made-up stuff, but all that made-up stuff is just a reasonable extension of what we and the author already know.

That research doesn’t have to be so extensive we end up with the knowledge of a Phd who specialized in that subject.  It just has to be sufficiently complete to be able to form a logical connection between the known and the imagination of the author.

Gene Roddenberry wrote the pilot for “Star Trek” at a time when manned spaceflight to even the moon was just a challenge made by President Kennedy, and yet the series didn’t seem all that far fetched to most viewers.  That’s because while his characters and situations were far from anything his viewing audience had ever seen, both were similar to what they had seen or knew at the time.  

His characters have human emotions and act mostly like humans, even those with horns on their heads or pointy ears.  For the most part, they have beliefs and morals, both good and bad, similar to all of us.  That makes them believable no matter how they look.

Roddenberry blended his imagination with his experience in law enforcement and as both a World War II bomber pilot and as a commercial pilot.  If you watch the original series, you’ll see how he worked those experiences into the plot. The maneuvering of The Enterprise is the same as you’d see in any movie about pilots or ship captains in WWII.  The terms the crew use are just a little different.

The situations into which he thrusts his characters are plausible because they’re the same we’ve seen and read in movies and books about the early exploration of the old West, Africa, the Amazon basin, and early Japan and China.  Only the characters and settings are different.

Romance novels are another example of writing about that which you know blended with research.  Unless reincarnation is a fact rather than the fervent hope of some, no current writer of romance novels has ever lived in the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth century, yet it’s a popular era and a writer can bring those times to life as if he or she has lived in those times.  The answer again is research.

Novels require a significant amount of research because of their length.  Short stories do not.  Short stories only require enough research to allow the writer to create a “flavor” that lends credibility to the story.  You may have never gone white water rafting, but it takes only a little research to see how people are dressed, the makeup of a typical raft, the scenery, and the fact that it gets really wet pretty fast.  

That’s the scene you want to paint as you tell the story and it will lend credence to the plot by providing an explanation of how and why. The beginning - How and why the people got there, the plot - what happens in the story, and the end are imagination, seasoned with research, and baked in the oven of experience.   

A quote from William Faulkner illustrates how experience, imagination, and research work together.

“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”

So, if you're already a writer, share your views about writing.  It'll help us all and especially the beginners who want to write but don't think they know enough to do so.