What You Don't Know
by Brian Plante
A fellow writer and friend of mine recently sent me an e-mail in which she quoted none other than Stephen King saying, "Write what you know." Although I'm sure that adage predated King, he certainly is one of the main proponents of that philosophy. Almost all his stories are set in Maine and peopled by New Englanders -- the same people and places that King lives with in real life. He's very successful with this sort of thing.
I responded to the e-mail by saying that if Stephen King thinks you should "write what you know," then Stephen King is a boob. Okay, Stephen King has made a gazillion dollars writing fiction while I still struggle for slots in semi-pro magazines that only other writers know about. Why should you listen to me? Forget the gazillion dollars or that King is the second most widely read author on the planet (after R. L. Stine, of course). Forget them because, well, Stephen King doesn't write articles for the New Jersey Graveline and I do. If he disagrees, he's free to write in. The editor might publish it.
The problem with "write what you know" is that it stifles creativity. If a writer believes he is not qualified to set a story in the African veldt because he's never been on safari, he is limiting his horizons. Instead of dreaming up intriguing people, places and plots, the WWYK author limits himself only to what he has experienced firsthand. Imagine how boring the fiction shelves would be if all writers stuck to this philosophy.
Have you ever noticed how many protagonists in bad books are writers ? These stories are products of the WWYK school of thought, where the author doesn't even show enough imagination to make his protagonist a banker or car salesman. The author knows what it's like to be a writer, so his main character is one, living in a town very much like the real author's hometown, with other characters just like the author's friends and neighbors, involved in situations just like real life. Ho hum.
Now think, instead, of the best books you've ever read, and not just horror and science fiction ones. Adventures on the high seas with Captains Ahab and Nemo. World War II intrigue. Hobbits. Rhett and Scarlett in the Civil War South. Political uprisings on the moon. Worlds where the vampires have taken over. Hunchbacks in French cathedrals. If you believe like I do that fiction, especially genre fiction, is intended primarily to entertain, then one of the duties of a story is to take the reader to different times and places and make him experience things outside of his known world. If you don't believe the term "escapist literature" is a curse, then give your reader something to escape to.
"Sense of wonder" is another phrase bandied about, and I don't think you get that with the cozy little slices-of-life that take place in your own back yard. Mysteries, romances, and literary vignettes all can take place in familiar settings to good effect, and many horror plots can take the familiar and turn it upside down for shock value, but for most genre fiction, different is better.
Make your story interesting for the reader. Put them in unfamiliar times and places. Of course, what this means is that you'll have to do some (gasp!) research. Now, you don't have to go on safari or spend months in the library learning all there is to know about Africa to set a 3000-word short story on the veldt. Maybe an article in National Geographic is all you require. Learn just as much as you need to make a story convincing and no more. Nobody wants to know about the twelve different types of grass that grow on the veldt, so you're just wasting time getting down to that level of detail.
You shouldn't try, however, to fake things you don't know. Write around them instead. If your protagonist has to look into the eyes of a tiger and you just can't find out in your research what color a tiger's eyes really are, write only that they burned brightly. I once read of a writer who tried faking details about the New York subway. In his book, he mentioned the little bathrooms on each subway car, which surely sent every NY editor who read it into hysterics. If you're not sure of some details, leave them out of your story, but if the details are crucial, then you must look them up.
Characters, too, should be from off the beaten path. Make them unique products of your imagination, not fictionalized versions of your aunt Sadie or the high school teacher you hated. You can do better than that. Borrow bits and pieces from real life, but the overall characters should be of your own devising.
Telling a writer that she should stick to what she knows is like telling an actor that only Native American are qualified to play Indians in the movies. It's an insult to the non-Native American because that's what acting is -- pretending to be something you're not. Similarly, WWYK should be an insult to writers, presuming that they are not qualified to make up stories purely from their imagination and research.
Be inventive. You've got the whole world (and other worlds) as your backdrop, all of history (or alternate history) as your period, everyone who's ever (or never) lived as your cast, and an unlimited special effects budget. So what are you going to write, another story about a modern-day serial killer who looks like your cousin Vinnie prowling the food court at the Menlo Park Mall?
Copyright © 1996 Brian Plante, first appeared in The New Jersey Graveline , July 1996. Count=5299
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