When I first started to write, not the forty years of unfinished manuscripts stuffed in my file cabinet, but the last four years of serious writing, I was given some writing advice. “Write what you know.” I have heard the quote is attributed to Mark Twain, but some folks have also said William Faulkner.
I learned later that this is one of the most well-known axioms told to all newbie authors. The idea is that if you write what you know, it will be easier for you to write and your stories will be authentic.
“Well that sucks,” a throaty female voice spoke from behind.
Turning in my chair I spotted my lovely Muse, Willow. She stood in the doorway, hands balled on hips.
“What sucks?” As usual I was totally at a loss to her meaning.
“Write what you know.” She shook her head and dropped into her favorite leather chair, then looked at me askew. “Have you been holding back on me?”
“What?” As was the norm, I had no idea what she was talking about. For that manner, pretty much not what any woman is talking about.
“If you are supposed to write what you know, then wouldn’t you have to know how to use a bow, ride a horse, and spar with a Greatsword?”
“That’s all true.” Even the thought of doing so made me laugh. “The idea that a 1,100 pound animal is going to do what I want it to do seems a little ridiculous don’t you think.” I smiled. “Plus whenever I try to ride, my thighs ache for days.”
“Ah, I see what you are getting at.” I am not always the quickest on the uptake, but I do get the point eventually. “I guess I am the antithetical Writer.”
“The what?” Her nose wrinkled.
“Antithetical.” I tried to keep my smile from turning into a wide grin. It was a rare time when I knew something she didn’t. “The direct opposite. Totally contrary to the advice given me.”
“Yes you are,” humor threaded her tone. “I actually think that for some authors it is better to write what you don’t know. It is never too late to learn something new.”
I couldn’t answer for a few moments as I had to think about what she meant, then I grasped what she was trying to say. “So if I write about things unfamiliar to me, it would force me to learn about them?”
“Exactly. When you started writing about Shields, what you call a Knight, you spent hours researching about Medieval armor, how Knights trained in the Pell, what was their role in their culture, and other facts about Knights.” She leaned forward again, her finger pointed at me to make her point. “How much time have you spent looking up what food was available in Medieval England?”
“A lot.” I nodded with a sigh. Just the memory of the hours spent discovering what fruit and vegetables were grown; which ones nobles ate and which ones the common man could put on the family table.
“What about housing, modes of travel; roads and taverns, castles, how merchants and money worked, plant life, and dozens of other topics you knew nothing about before you started to write these books?” She sat back and stared at me, a smug look on her face.
Her laundry list of items that I was ignorant on did not make me feel all that good. “I think it has taken me twice as long to write the novels as it should have. I probably spent as much time researching as writing.” It seemed like an endless stream of exploring the unknown.
“I guess, at least for some folks, Mark Twain’s quote doesn’t work.” Willow enjoyed pointing out when someone was wrong.
“Maybe, at least not for me. I like learning new things. And for me it is a matter of writing what I like to read myself, not necessarily if I knew it beforehand or not.”
She stood and walked over and turned my chair to face the computer, then walked behind me. I felt a hand on my shoulder and then she told me in a whimsical tone, “Then lets write some more about what we don’t know.”
QUESTIONS: Do you find yourself forced to learn new things? Is it a challenge you enjoy or do you fight it with every fiber in your body? And for Authors, what do you think about ‘Writing what you know’? Take a moment here and share your opinions.