The Buzz: What is this “Write what you Know” crap, anyway?

    Everyone always advises writers to “write what you know.”  *blinks* Two decades later, and I’m still trying to figure out what that means.  Me, I’m a trivia/research junkie.  Set me loose in a library, and you might never see me again (I literally have to set a time limit on myself when I’m in the library).  I can browse the non-fiction shelves for hours.  Something might jump out at me, and I’ll pull it down and read a little.  If the subject intrigues me, I’ll keep reading.  If not, back it goes.  But I’ve probably still gleaned at least one or two little factoids that might work their way to the surface again, sometime.

 So what do I know?  I’ve pondered the question at length.  I know I don’t know everything there is to know about anything.  I know that even though my opinions are based on facts as much as gut feeling, those opinions are not set in stone, and new evidence or experience can always change them.  How does one write about these things?

The answer is surprisingly easy – you don’t.  This conundrum shows itself in your characters, in how they interact with the world, but you don’t actually WRITE about philosophical ponderings (not unless you want to put your audience to sleep, or you’re writing a deep non-fiction book about philosophy).  Instead, you write about what you LEARN, rather than what you know.  Me, when I have a story idea, I go with it.  I get an idea of what I want to know, and then I go in search of the knowledge I don’t have.  Sometimes, it comes from observing or talking to people.  Sometimes, it comes from places like Discovery Channel or National Geographic.  Sometimes, it comes from hours and hours spent in the library (either my own or public or university libraries), sifting through all the information I can find, and sometimes it comes from extensive, exhaustive online searching.  But I don’t take it for granted that I KNOW the information.  And I don’t stop researching until I get to the point where either the book is finished, or I’ve exhausted every possible avenue I can find. 

Does this mean I always get the information I’m seeking?  No.  Sometimes, after months of exhaustive searching, I have to admit defeat – that there may not be the information, or that I may not be able to get in contact with the people who know it, like I’d want to.  Then, I have to get creative, and try to ascertain the answer from the facts I HAVE learned, using logic.  Sometimes, it works.  Other times, it might not.  But I can always look back at the work and say “I did the absolute best research I could do.”


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