The Risks of Writing What You Know

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“Write what you know” is, on the whole, very good advice. You pick up innumerable details by sheer osmosis from lived experience, and those details get into your writing without you even knowing it. Your readers will be able to sense the authenticity when you write what you know. And as Get Jiro illustrates, “write what you know” doesn’t have to limit you to writing semi-autobiographical literary novels.

That said, everyone has limits to their knowledge, and sometimes a story takes you into unfamiliar territory. The best thing to do when this happens, of course, is research. Make yourself familiar with the new topic. Ideally, go out and add it to your lived experience. Stephen King considers himself a lazy researcher, but he spent a month riding along with Pennsylvania state troopers when he was preparing to write From A Buick 8.

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(He also warns to resist the temptation to show off all of the fascinating new things you learn as you do your research. Maybe Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz in his younger years could pull off novels that are half tech manuals; you probably can’t. Don’t turn your ghost story into a dissertation on police and legal procedure in Paducah, Kentucky. Keep the background in the background.)

If you’re not up to doing research, a less-happy solution is to stick to writing only what you know. The poster child for this approach – and perhaps the crowning example of how to do it successfully – is Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

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Old H.P. lived most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island, liked books better than people, and didn’t get out much. Most of his human interaction was carried on in his voluminous letter-writing. As a result, the man couldn’t write dialogue to save his life. A sample from The Dunwich Horror:

‘I dun’t keer what folks think – ef Lavinny’s boy looked like his pa, he wouldn’t look like nothin’ ye expeck. Ye needn’t think the only folks is the folks hereabouts. Lavinny’s read some, an’ has seed some things the most o’ ye only tell abaout. I calc’late her man is as good a husban’ as ye kin find this side of Aylesbury; an’ ef ye knowed as much abaout the hills as I dew, ye wouldn’t ast no better church weddin’ nor her’n. Let me tell ye suthin – some day yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!’

To be fair, I don’t know what degenerate villagers in backwoods New England in the early Twentieth Century sounded like…but reading that, I suspect Lovecraft didn’t, either.

(By the way, H.P., I don’t think that last line is as ominous as you think it is.)

But Howard knew his limitations. Most of his stories are set in New England (the ones that are set in this dimension, that is); most of his protagonists are reclusive, sensitive, intellectual types like himself; and only a tiny percentage of his writing is dialogue.

To be even fairer, I must confess that a big part of the reason I set my own novel, Hometown, in 1994 was because I was following the “Stick to what I know” approach. The early-to-mid Nineties is when I went to high school, and that was the era I could write about most accurately and vividly.

So as much as the “stick to what you know” approach can be a self-limiting way to write, it can be made to work.

The real problem comes if you just don’t care. If you don’t know, you don’t bother to find out, and you write as if you know anyway. Because what happens then is that you make stuff up. And when you make stuff up, maybe you get close to the truth…but it’s more likely that you get something blatantly, embarrassingly wrong. Especially because, when you make stuff up, the tendency is to force things you don’t know into the mold of the things you do.

In order to illustrate what I mean, I’m going to have to break a resolution I made a little over a year ago to stop focusing on Left Behind for examples in my writing theory posts. Deconstructing the Left Behind books is Fred Clark’s schtick, and I shouldn’t try to steal it. But at the same time, Left Behind’s examples of the problems I’m describing are too perfect to pass up.

The first two examples are closely related. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind books, have spent their lives ensconced in the Evangelical Christian subculture. The word “Christian” means only one thing to them (at least when we’re talking about Real True Christians, as they would say on Slacktivist), so Christian characters behave like the Christians they know…even if it makes no sense for them to behave that way.

For example. One-third of the human population has recently disappeared – all of the children, and several million adults (given LaHaye and Jenkins’s criteria for Real True Christians, most of those adults would be centered in the United States, but the books don’t seem to reflect that).  Cameron “Buck” Williams – Jenkins’s Marty Stu stand-in and the Greatest Investigative Reporter Of All Time – has naturally been called upon to report on this.  Now, having recently been Saved (that is, converted to an L&J-approved brand of Evangelical Christianity), Buck knows the truth: that all of the missing people were taken in The Rapture.  But he doesn’t take the opportunity this article presents to share this truth.  Instead, he takes the opportunity to argue theology with a Catholic Archbishop.

Now, Buck is a Marty Stu and the archbishop is a straw man, so Buck wins the debate handily, which is bad writing in its own right.  But that’s not the point I’m making here.

Buck has been an Evangelical Christian for all of about three days.  What’s more, all of the truly dedicated Evangelical Christians have been taken in The Rapture (there are a few left who weren’t truly dedicated, but not many).  He doesn’t know about the importance of the Faith vs. Works debate.  He can’t know.  Before his conversion, he was a Deist at most, with no interest in such subcultural shibboleths.  Post-conversion (and post-Rapture), the available teachers are few and far between.  And even if he did know, he hasn’t spent his life practicing quoting chapter and verse.

But he does anyway.  Because for LaHaye and Jenkins, that’s what being a Christian means.  They can’t imagine a Real True Christian who doesn’t behave like someone in their subculture, even if he would have no way of knowing how someone in their subculture behaves.

The next example is somewhat like it.  Buck falls in love with Chloe Steele, the college-aged daughter Rayford Steele, the books’ other protagonist (yes, a thirty-year-old macking on a twenty-one-year-old is mildly creepy.  But let’s push on; that’s the least of their problems).  Chloe was raised in the Evangelical subculture, although she rejected it (her purpose in the story is to represent all those smart-ass college kids who are led astray by too much book learning, and how they’ll be sorry for that when the time comes), so she should understand a lot of the arcana that Buck doesn’t.  She never demonstrates that knowledge, though, and we certainly don’t see her teaching him.  But I digress.

Now, it makes perfect sense for two recent converts to Real True Christianity to refrain from sex until married.  Even a neophyte like Buck knows that this is a common Christian teaching (hell, it may be all he knows).  They may follow the spirit of the law as well as the letter, or they may follow the equally ancient tradition of “everything else but“, but considering the zeal of recent converts, I’m ready to admit that what happens in the book – remaining chaste and marrying quickly – is indeed the most likely outcome, at least in its general outline.

(Incidentally, I am completely serious about the ancientness of the tradition of technical virginity.  If you could get an honest accounting of history, look at the diaries of all those people who couldn’t read or write, you’d find a lot of weddings where a healthy, full-term infant was born six months later. And of those where you didn’t, you’d find some where the couple went to their marriage bed untouched virgins, sure – but you’d also find a lot of sore butts, aching jaws, and tired wrists.  Those who imagine that people used to be better behaved than they are now are kidding themselves.)

What doesn’t make sense is that these two highly secularized people would, immediately upon conversion, start behaving like lifelong fundamentalist Baptists.  See here for what I’m talking about.  Yes, they’re going to follow the new rules and stay out of each others’ pants.  No, they’re not going to start attaching entirely too much meaning to a cookie and worrying about moving too fast into the handholding stage of the relationship.

But that’s the only way L&J can imagine Real True Christians behaving.

To be fair, part of this may be that they know their audience, and just how “sinful” the characters can be and still remain sympathetic to that audience.  Consider: the protagonists, even when Unsaved, are pretty lukewarm in terms of their sins. In fact, they seem to be limited to “not believing”. Buck, a globetrotting adventurous Man Of The World is a virgin at the age 30, which seems unlikely. Let’s be blunt: unless he was asexual – which would truly be a unique twist – a globetrotting adventurous man of the world is going to have boinked somebody by that point. But no, he’s a virgin, and it’s taken for granted that Chloe is too.

(How much more powerful would the story of these characters’ redemption be if they had some sins worthy of the name on their souls?   What if Buck had spent his twenties wallowing in hookers and blow, or Chloe had had a lesbian fling at college?  Not that I would consider the latter a sin, though I’m sure L&J’s audience would.  But I digress again.)

So maybe part of this is L&J writing for their audience, who wouldn’t be interested in characters who are too different from themselves.  But it can’t be just that.  When we meet the character of the Rev. Bruce Barnes, one of the aforementioned Evangelical Christians who wasn’t dedicated enough, he confesses his sins to the protagonists.  Quite frankly, his sins are as lukewarm as those of the rest of the characters.  No stealing from the till or screwing the church secretary for Barnes, just slacking at his job and reading porno magazines.  But LaHaye and Jenkins clearly believe, and expect us to believe, that Barnes is living high off the hog and wallowing in the sins of the flesh.  However much they’re trying to play to the audience, they also believe this themselves.

That lack of perspective is related to what we’re talking about here, but there’s a much better example in the same scene.  You see, Rev. Barnes was the Visitation Pastor at his church.  The Visitation Pastor, as the name implies, visits the sick, the old, and others who can’t make it to church themselves.  This is a subordinate position to the Senior Pastor, which is the position that Tim LaHaye occupied in real life (and boy does he make sure we know it).  The thing is, as LaHaye presents the character of Bruce Barnes, he proves himself to be so incurious that he doesn’t even understand the job of his own visitation pastor!

This is what you want to avoid.  Write what you know – expand what you know when you can, limit yourself to what you know if you must, but don’t write what you don’t know as if it was what you know.

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