Write What You Know – Response to Jodie Llewellyn’s Blog

Hey all,

Today’s blog is in response to Jodie Llewellyn’s blog (click here to read it) regarding writers and the rule-of-thumb about writing what you know.

If you’re not familiar with that ‘rule,’ it basically states that a writer should only write what they know in order to make the story believable.  Writing what you don’t know is, at least in some circles of writing (like my college classes,) a taboo.

But when Jodie wrote about that very topic on her blog, she stated, “I generally like to pen something as far removed from my life as possible.”  I found that to be fascinating and, frankly, really cool :)  But it brought up an important point for me – when writing genres like Fantasy and Sci-Fi, you have no choice but to write about things you don’t have personal experience with.

Image Source - http://www.wikipedia.org/
Image Source – http://www.wikipedia.org/

If I’m wrong about that, and someone does have experience living in Middle Earth and fighting trolls, I’d love to meet you!  For the rest of us, however, we have only our imaginations to fall back upon for those experiences.

Does this mean genre fiction writers don’t need to have real life experiences from which to draw upon?  Should they avoid drawing upon real life experiences altogether?

No, in fact if anything, I think it means we should draw upon life whenever we can.

Building a Fantasy with Truth

Image Source - Google Images
Image Source – Google Images

I’ll never slay an orc (video games don’t count.)  I’ve never stepped foot on a spaceship.  And as much as I wish I really, really could, I’ll never encounter a dragon (unless you count a Komodo Dragon :) )  But I have fallen in love, and then had my heart broken.  I have hiked through the mountains.  I’ve taken ballroom dancing lessons.  I know how to handle a firearm, and I even have some limited experience with wielding a sword.

I’ve found in my own writing that while all of the action takes place in a world often far removed from ours (not counting my newest project,) if I write what I do know mixed in with those fantastical elements, I created a much richer, much more believable story.  The characters come alive with their own experiences, the world feels believable because of my own experiences in similar environments.

Take for instance the second chapter of The Sword of Dragons, one of the antagonists is hiking through the desert on a quest.  When I initially wrote this scene, I had never actually personally stood atop a sand dune.  Which is ironic since I lived in a desert environment for 15 years.

Photo taken by Lonnie Rednour
Photo taken by Lonnie Rednour

After I had already written that chapter, I took a trip to White Sands National Monument, and learned what it felt like to actually climb up and down large sand dunes.  I saw the breathtaking view of standing atop a dune with hazy mountains in the distance.  And I learned that climbing dunes was an extraordinarily tiring experience.

So when I went back to that chapter, I realized mistakes and assumptions I had made about traversing a massive desert, and I corrected it, hopefully making for a more believable story.  Now no, I never encountered giant scorpions in the desert or met an exiled Wizard, but with that bit of realism, readers won’t be jarred out of the story, and their suspension of disbelief can continue unhindered.

Research Can Work Too

Last year, I found myself wanting to write about something I could experience, but at the time I had neither the money nor the time to do so – sailing.  Now granted, no matter what, I would have needed to do some research.  I don’t think anyone around here provides sailing lessons on old square-rigged ships, and this was for my novel The Sword of Dragons – Burning Skies.

Since I couldn’t even take modern sailing lessons, I hit the books.  Or rather, the internet.  I studied terminology, methods, technology of square-riggers and clipper ships, and even asked people who had been sailing before about their experiences.

Image Source - http://moonwolves.wordpress.com/
Image Source – http://moonwolves.wordpress.com/

It was extremely valuable knowledge, but it wasn’t quite enough for me, so I turned to a movie that I knew was fairly accurate in its rendition of square-rigged sailing: Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World.  I watched it, not for the first time mind you, but this time I paid close attention to the experiences the crew seemed to have, their emotions and the conditions in which they lived and worked.

Of course, since the novel didn’t focus on the sailing, I didn’t go into great details.  Plus it was from Cardin Kataar’s PoV, and he’s never been a sailor or even stepped foot on a ship before that journey.  So I didn’t inundate the reader with mundane details.  Never-the-less, I believe all of my efforts paid off, and the scenes aboard the Sea Wisp turned out great :)

Random Ending

Totally unrelated to this post, I recently posted a question for everyone on my facebook and I’d like to ask it here as well: I’ve been encouraged to participate in something called the Weekend Writing Warriors.  This entails what’s called an 8Sunday post, or in other words, posting 8 sentences from my current work-in-progress on Sunday.

My question to everyone: how many of you would be interested in reading snippets and excerpts from my novels?

Thanks for reading!
-Jon

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