Here’s the next bit of writing advice stuff I want to share from my upcoming book.
“Write what you know” is a strange piece of advice for authors of genre fiction. I mean, I know vampires insomuch as Lestat helped me to inform my sexuality as a teen. But I don’t know know vampires, because vampires don’t exist. I guess you could argue that vampires exist in a literary sense, and you should know the genre before writing it. But then I say, what about completely unique world elements? What if I’m writing about Buwatoos? Since I just made them up, there’s not really anything established to know about them. There’s no literary tradition. There’s no existing genre. Since literally everything I write about Buwatoos establishes everything to know about them, there’s no way for me to not know about them.
But let’s focus this down to a more manageable idea: Write about real things you know about, and make your stories that are about fake stuff actually about real stuff you know about.
This is a place I feel a lot of media criticism gets it wrong. Let’s take Game of Thrones for example. There’s a common feminist critique that the books, and to greater degree the show, leans on rape as a trope irresponsibly. Now, I’m not going to argue for or against the point’s specifics here. The criticism exists. A common refrain you hear in defense of the trope is that it’s “a gritty and realistic representation of an era.” Then, a common counterargument goes, “Gritty and realistic? Like the part with the dragons? Or the frost zombies?”
Now, there are a million reasons the two sides of this argument aren’t going to see eye-to-eye. Rape culture’s a hell of a drug. But, I think the fundamental argument here is about “write what you know.” Clearly, the creators know everything they need to know about dragons and frost zombies, because they make up the rules there. But it seems that the creators don’t actually know much about the realities of rape and rape culture. Rape culture is a very real issue, and the argument is really that the creators don’t know enough about it to use it responsibly. The creators are essentially failing to “write what they know.”
What Is Your Story About?
You’re inevitably going to write about things you don’t know. You have to, because nobody knows everything, and you’re (probably) presenting a big damned world. That doesn’t really matter—a little cursory research or even guesswork, and you’ve probably got what you need.
What really matters is The Thing You’re Writing About. What you’re really writing about. Not the trappings. Not the superficial elements. For example, in Cocaine, I’m writing about monsters and shit. But really, I’m writing a story about drug use and judgment. “Write what you know” isn’t really relevant with the monsters, the trappings. I can just make shit up. The real meat of the story, I have to have a fundamental understanding of. Which I do, so hey, bonus points.
What this means is, you can write stories that are “about” things you don’t know, so long as you’re really making your stories about something you do know. If you don’t know professional car racing, popular advice would have you avoid writing about car racing. But, what if your story is actually about a hot race car driver and her budding romance with a single mom? Then, it’s really about that romance.
Let me use my single favorite example, one you’re going to get a lot of in my writing advice: Jackie Chan.
Jackie Chan movies (I’m mostly referencing the height of his career in the 1980s and 1990s) are not really about the things they seem to be on the surface. My favorite Jackie Chan series is Police Story. It’s about police, right? It’s right on the damned title. “Police Story.” You can’t get a story that’s more about police than that, can you?
Police Story is about pursuits. Police Story is about quirky relationships. Police Story is about ridiculous capers. You could easily re-skin the Police Story movies to be about gangsters, soldiers, prisoners, or any number of other things without actually changing what they’re fundamentally about.
So, if you’re Jackie Chan, you don’t really need to know much about police procedure. Hell, the movies are riddled with utter nonsense that bear almost no resemblance to actual police work. Nobody cares. If a police officer watches Police Story, their instinct isn’t going to be to say, “That’s not what it’s like being a cop.” They’re going to get drawn into what the stories are actually about.
Contrast this with a hard police procedural show. In those kinds of shows, your average audience member might not care about inaccuracy, but that’ll turn off anyone who knows about the realities of police work. This isn’t to say that these aren’t quality stories, but they lose something in telling stories about things they clearly don’t know.