Today, I’m going to springboard off of Tessa’s excellent post on the age-old adage Show-Don’t-Tell, to tackle another piece of conventional craft-wisdom: Write What You Know.
Now, obviously this is not meant to be taken literally, because if we took the saying at face value, we wouldn’t have fantasy or magical realism, or hard science fiction. So, what does it really mean?
The short answer is: I’m often sort of confused (about this, and also things in general).
The long answer is: I’ve seen this topic hashed out enough over the years to feel like when someone says, “write what you know,” maybe a better mantra would be, Know What You’re Writing.
If I’m writing on a subject I know nothing about, a crucial step is always figuring out exactly why it’s important to the story. Why is it interesting? What does it mean? What do I want to say about it?
Don’t get me wrong—I’m a firm believer in research, but the fact is, most of my meticulous and illegible notes aren’t going to make it into the story. My philosophy on research is that you go deep because you need to know that you’re not getting something wrong.
Over time, a key component to my research has become pictures. Or rather, photographs.
A picture is a way of finding out what something is like. A picture shows specific details, while simultaneously giving a larger impression. Just knowing what something looks like goes a long way toward tricking the reader into thinking that what you’ve described in your story real.
Here, I’m posing with Esther. Esther is a Noritsu QSS 2611 optical printer, and I realize that most people don’t have access to such a
fussy temperamental expensive advanced piece of equipment, but that doesn’t mean the industrial-grade-printerless writer needs to despair. Esther is just the way I learned the value of pictures, and it actually took me an unaccountably long time to figure it out.
I worked with her for five and a half years, and in that time, I easily saw half a million pictures.
I am, by no means, an expert on piercing, tattooing, quilting, veterinary medicine, autopsy, biopsy, hotel hospitality, ballistics, fraternity hazing, deer-hunting, duck-hunting, big-game hunting, dentistry, or soft-core pornography. But I’ve seen enough pictures of these things to start picking out both aberrations and commonalities. Everything is specific, and everything also resembles something else like it, and I think that just presenting these two sets of superficial data goes a long way toward establishing authorial credibility.
Now, when I need to get feel for what something is like—whenever I need to know about something—the first thing I do is hit up the internet, and start looking at pictures.