Writerly Sound Bites, Number 11: Write What You Know, or Who You Know?

Mr. Haldeman’s statement appears rather condemning at first blush. “Write what you know” – what do you know? In the speculative genres, none of us know what space travel or Faerie is like. We can study the biographies of astronauts, but that does not mean we know, firsthand, what it is like to visit space. Research and reading must be done to write about Faerie properly and even then, we are building off the work of past writers, not fact itself.

So, what do writers know? Perhaps that is not the question. Mayhap the question is: Who do writers know?

Think about it. If a writer has a character in mind with a particular skill set, from a particular region, and a particular culture, then he can make an effort to study these things to add authenticity to his work. A famous author has done this admirably with a particular thriller series which has been adapted to film and most recently a streaming service.

But oh, the limits of research. As someone I know has said, this famous author lacks familiarity with the business of American trucking. If you have read a novel in the series that mentions the titular hero pausing at a truck stop, you will understand this. These rest areas are all characterized as being large, lavish, and somewhat opulent.

The state governments place these enlarged or very large rest areas, including food and fuel franchises, along the Northeastern or Northern I-95 corridor. However, the series’ author extends these establishments across the country, such as in one story where he places this “truck stop” in the middle of U.S. Interstate 80 in Montana. This type of “truck stop” or rest area, as described by the series’ writer, is not ubiquitous across the United States and it is not in the middle of I-80 in Montana.

In fact, the rest areas this well-known author describes are not typical south past Maryland or north beyond New York. They are also not truck stops in the actual sense: a truck stop is a private enterprise owned by corporations, individuals and/or their families. This renowned author’s “truck stops” in his novels are state rest areas leased to food and fuel entities by the states in the Northeast, not private enterprises.

Now I happen to know these rest areas do not exist outside the northeastern U.S. because the person I know who reads this author’s books regularly and enjoys them drove eighteen wheelers across the “Lower 48” and Canada for years. Lacking that experience myself, I naturally would assume the descriptions in the novel series were accurate. Due to knowing someone with actual experience in the locations where the famous author sets his stories, however, I know something the writer himself is apparently unaware he does not know.

None of this is to pick on, attack, or even critique the author I have left nameless. It is to further drive home the point that “write what you know” is not a question that offers a clear path to authorial success. A man can know anything, but that knowledge does not necessarily translate to knowing what his characters ought to know. Or what is reflected in reality, or how different people in different regions see the same sunrise and the same sunset.

It has been lamented many times that twenty witnesses of the same event will offer separate accounts of that occurrence. This is a matter of extreme annoyance to those who seek to solve crimes and protect the public from evildoers because it makes ascertaining what actually happened difficult. While that is true, writers ought to sit up and take note of this since it makes it clear that it is not what you know that matters in writing. It is who you know.

Future authors, who you know defines the parameters of your characters. I have said many times that archetypes are a reliable writing device, and this is true. But – as I have also said – archetypes embody the traits of REAL PEOPLE. The only difference is that an archetype has no flesh upon it; it is just as a skeleton with tendons and muscles. It is not a person. Play Dr. Frankenstein with such a framework in real life and you will not create a person nor even a monster like to his famous one. You will just have a corpse covered in the skin of other corpses.

Just so, starting with an archetype alone is not enough. You have to know your fellow man to write about him accurately, and that requires either personal experience with his profession or study of it to get a better idea of how it works and/or would work in the future. One of the best ways to learn about a man’s profession is to ask him about it. If he knows enough about how his profession came to be or about history in general, he can help you learn the roots of a variety of different professions as they were accomplished in the past.

How do you get to know your fellow man? This is tricky, and it starts with one very difficult step. For this, future authors, you will have to take a deep breath. Let it out, then get up, and go to the bathroom or the nearest reflective surface.

Look your reflection in the eyes and do not look away.

Yes. The first, best way to learn how to know your fellow men is to start with yourself. The capacity for great good, great evil, and complete indolence resides within us all. The biggest question is, which one of these three has the run of our lives most often?

If you are still reading this, congratulations – you are braver than most. Looking in one’s own eyes to see a monster, even a chained one, staring back is not fun. I do not speak from anything less than experience. We all want to be the hero of our own story, but sometimes, we are in fact our own worst enemy. Sometimes we are the villain.

No, that is not fun. It is even less fun to look at the latest crime report in the news, wonder how anyone could be that evil, then realize: “Yeah, I could be that evil. If I wanted to do that, I could.” It is imperative for all of us to understand that we could be that selfish, that proud, that envious. We could be that self-obsessed, that arrogant, that determined to be right. We could be that hypocritical, that controlling, that oblivious. We could be that self-pitying, that unwilling to take responsibility, that mean-spirited. That self-righteously angry, that vengeful, that lazy, that hateful, that cruel.

We could be bad.

We could be evil.

We could be the villain.

Facing that realization head on leaves one sick. Shaking. You want to find the nearest corner and curl up into a ball, like a little child trying to hide from the monster under the bed. Only you know it isn’t going to work, because the monster isn’t under the bed. It’s inside you, and the only thing holding it back is you and your choices. The responsibility of chaining that beast down and keeping it there? That is also your duty. No one else can do it for you.

Oh, people wish they could. Trust me, they do. More often than not, we run from what terrifies us. Facing the monster inside is hard precisely because you want to run. Run, run, run, and never stop.

Most people do just that. There’s a reason I said to find a reflective surface, look your reflection in the eye, and don’t look away. Don’t look so long that the abyss blinks back, but don’t immediately glance aside, either. That’s how you avoid recognizing and admitting the monster is there. Again, speaking from experience, that’s not conducive to good living.

Neither is it conducive to good writing.

Once you recognize that evil exists and where it may reside, future authors, you have to dive deeper. Yes, there is actually a level below the darkness. Father Dwight Longenecker talks about this in The Romance of Religion*, where he uses the analogy of a man looking for monsters under his bed. He comes out the other side of the bed blowing dust and laughing.

Laughing? Why laughing? The hypothetical person who has passed under the bed has seen the deeper things, the “magic from before the dawn of time,” if you will pardon the Narnian* reference. For men are dust, and unto dust they shalt return, but the Maker of reality Himself never passes away. There is, as Sam put it in The Lord of the Rings* “light and high beauty” forever beyond the reach of the darkness that seeks to strangle us. Or, if you would prefer a more straightforward speech, you could try this one from Captain Kirk in A Taste of Armageddon:

If we keep aiming at that light – and yes, since I am a Catholic, I know and believe that light is God Himself. Feel free to find another name for Him, if you so desire; He will pursue you no matter where you go. I have no need to chase you for Him. The Hound of Heaven is relentless in pursuit of His love, after all. But as long as you keep aiming for that light, keep walking, crawling, or even allowing others (or Himself) to carry you forward, you will do just fine.

How will you know you are still following the light? There is an oft-misquoted line from Hamlet* that offers a good guide for staying on the path:

To thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not be false with any man.

In modern parlance, if you never lie to yourself or allow yourself to believe your own lies, you cannot lie to anyone else. Not to your spouse, not to your mother, not to your father, not to your best friend, not to the teacher, the clerk, or the man across the street. Provided you hold yourself to an objective moral standard and never let yourself wriggle out of it, even when clouds obscure the sky, you will be following that star Sam spotted in the midst of Mordor.

There’s no need to be Catholic for this to work. Benjamin Franklin examined his conscience daily, and he was not Catholic. Nor did he ever become Catholic. Being honest with oneself, seeing where one falls short and resolving to do better is something anyone can do, regardless of the faith they do – or do not – profess.

Once you look at yourself and see where the evil may have residence if permitted, then pass under the bed to find the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time;” it makes it easier to understand others. Not perfectly, of course – if we all understood others (or even ourselves) thus we wouldn’t be here on this Earth. We would be in heaven. The fact remains, though, that if you know yourself it becomes easier to read and understand others.

I read somewhere that a famous writer wrote something to the effect of, “The writer should never apologize for staring, because there is nothing that does not warrant his attention.” Watch yourself, then watch your fellow men, and you start to see the patterns that formed various archetypes living in real time right before your eyes.

Learn your own history, which consists primarily of your family’s history. Learn more about your region so that you understand your local culture, which means you learn more about your national culture. No one needs a degree in history to write good stories (though it could certainly help), but an interest in the past and how it affects the present is needful in the writing of fiction.

Once you know where you come from, what shaped your past and the present you live in, you can apply the same techniques to other cultures and other people. No two people have the same mindset even if they hail from the same region or the same town. Siblings are occasionally so different in thought patterns and behaviors that one has to wonder if they are biologically related. Conversely, some people from opposite ends of the world think so much alike that it is both frightening and cause for joy.

This, perhaps, sounds either very scientific or entirely haphazard and unprofessional. It is not meant to be particularly scientific and if it appears disorganized, that is only because not all paths to knowledge are straight. The route to accurate self-knowledge, better known as humility, is most certainly not a straight shot for most of us and staying the course is…interesting, future writers. Let’s put it that way.

But it is possible. With work, with effort, it is possible to reach this level of knowledge. And the best part is, this level isn’t even the final one. It is, quite literally, the tip of the iceberg.

A writer can never know everything about himself, other people, or the world in this life. Nor will any story he tells ever be perfect. If, however, he writes about who he knows, then he will find more success than he would focusing on what he knows.

So, future authors: who do you know? Write about that person in the mirror and those you meet in everyday life. You might find more surprises – and more material to work with – than you expected.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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