Write what you know? What the **** do you know?

squid.jpgThe question always comes up. I’ll be chatting with a relative or an acquaintance and they will find out that I write fiction and they will raise their eyebrows and ask “Where do you get your ideas?” Where indeed. The mantra hammered into writers by how-to-books and writing courses is, “Write what you know.” In many writing classes I heard comments to other writers such as, “You know so much about white water rafting. You should really work that into your story. It would give it such authenticity.” Authenticity. How many writers have ruined a perfectly good story in the pursuit of authenticity? The writer receiving this advice would sometimes nod and say, “Yeah maybe.” The fact that the story was set in a desert, or in a nursing home, or in space, as far from any river rapids as could be, didn’t dissuade the commenter from suggesting this. That a experienced kayaker might not want every story they write to be about kayaking doesn’t shock me. I always marvelled that such suggestions came from other writers, blind to the idea that writers may be more motivated to write about what they don’t know than what they do.
So, where do ideas come from. They come from curiosity. They come from reading, and watching (yes, I even allow for television and movies as sources of inspiration). I was confronted with a very powerful urge to write a short story after reading thelong, sad tale of the lonely giant squid caught in New Zealand. The story is not about the squid, the process of catching it, or the men who catch it. It is pretty far removed from the factual elements of this event, but I wouldn’t have come upon the story I have at all, had it not been for simple curiosity and lots and lots of reading.
John Gardner wrote in one of his books on writing that writers don’t write what they know, they write to find out what they know. This strikes me as true and more helpful than “write what you know.” If I only write what I know I quickly find myself in a corner, and I become bored with myself. I’d find myself trapped and strangled, and much like that poor squid who found out that New Zealand isn’t a paradise for everyone.
And lastly, don’t confuse writing to find out what you don’t know with ignorant writing. Once onto a story idea research becomes not just a tool, but a necessity. It’s like oxygen. Ignorant writing, details made up rather than looked up, will stab at your readers sensibility and dispell their interest in your work. Research is part of the job. Think of yourself in the early stages of writing as a prospector who finds gold. He doesn’t just put the nugget on his finger. He takes it to the jewler who hammers it into shape. Curiosity is your prospecting, research is your refining.

2 thoughts on “Write what you know? What the **** do you know?

  1. An excellent example of the sort of natural curiosity I’m discussing can be found in Jaye Wells’ blog:
    Look for her recent “Weird Wednesday” entries. She has a way of finding odd bits of information that would be a goldmine of story ideas for a beginning writer. Writers look outward more than they do inward. That’s how they find what’s inside.

  2. Thanks for the link. You’re right about the prospecting aspect of things. There’s a synergy in research once you’re onto a really promising idea. Following that vein of gold can sometimes lead to a major creative jackpot. For me, this fact-finding period is my favorite part of the creative process-when synapses are firing and each new bit of information sparks new directions for the story.

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