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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Write What You Don't Know

I imagine most of us were told when we first started writing to write what we know. I remember that all too well, and it seems to me like it was also an era in which all anyone could find to read were self-immolations based on guilt or mis-treatment from the writer's childhood.
There was a lot to write about in those days. I recall a long string of books about Jewish men who had been traumatized by their mothers. Catholic women talked about their lives of guilt under their overbearing mothers. Pretty soon Jewish men and Catholic women were out and there came all the fathers of any, all, or no religious affiliation, who abused their daughters in truly awful ways. Ethnic stories became popular. Probably all of the above were true and valid, and all of these were extremely interesting to me at the time. But they were all speaking from their own experience.

My teachers and writing instructors all told me, "Write what you know." I was female, white, Protestant, and had a father who was too busy working to beat me. And I looked around at my plain white house in the middle of Oklahoma City, with my position as second child among five, and my father who went to work every day and my mother who stayed home every day. What did I have to say? That I was a mis-understood, ugly duckling, Straight-A student, who went to church on Sundays, and didn't have a date for Saturday night? And I was forced to live with a mother who had asthma and siblings who were annoying? Even back then I understood the rest of the world wouldn't take the time to read my story.

But how could I "know" about the things I wanted to write about? I loved history. I loved historical novels, and I wanted to write them. But let's face reality, I knew I didn't have any trips to Egypt and Rome scheduled in my near or distant future. (I'm gong to Rome for the first time this year, more decades later than I am willing to admit.)

I found what I wanted to know in books, hundreds of them. I watched horridly incorrect movies and viewed dozens of photos, joined groups of people who also love history, visited museums and re-enactments, and done everything I can to produce accurate stories. But I still make mistakes.

The truth is, you can NEVER know enough. But there just is a point where you have to wing it when you don't know. I can't go to England every year, and didn't go until I'd written twelve books set there. There's been a lot I got wrong, but there's also been a lot I got right.

So should I have not written those books because the subject was one I didn't know to the depth of my soul? I don't think so. That would be like telling a woman not to write about men until she completely understands them. In that case, there wouldn't be very many romances on the bookstore shelves, would there?

Not only that, I'm convinced the truly accurate historical would not be a very readable story today. Naturally, a story written in the Ancient Egyptian tongue would be far more accurate than one in English, but really, how many of us would even try to read it? We may descry the modern heroine dressed in period clothes, saying "Yeah, right" to the hero since that piece of dialogue is obviously from another century, but the reality is there is too much of the past that simply can't mesh with the modern reader. I contend truly accurate historical fiction is not really possible anymore.

Research is vital for almost all stories, but a part of that research is in the writing itself. Learn your facts as best you can, yes. But as you write, the information you have assimilates with what is innate within you and you begin to really understand what it was you didn't know. That is when the dry facts take life and become a story. That is when fiction becomes truth. And what you didn't know becomes what you know.

So learn what you can, but don't tie yourself into knots about a culture that is not your own or a place you've never been. Spin your tale, and learn from your own imagination.

Delle Jacobs


At 4:41 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

And the hard part can sometimes be knowing what you don't know so you can try to look it up. Taking things for granted leads to errors.

And there's the other thing. I come from a stable, loving, middle class family. My parents are still married. So am I, to my first husband. Three kids, all smart and healthy. How can I possibly be a writer, since I haven't "suffered" for the craft.

Dunno -- but I write fiction so I get to make stuff up.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Put me in the fairly normal club too. I was dragged all over the world by my Air Force Dad, but he and my Mom were married 40 years when he passed away. If they fought my brothers and I never knew it. I remember lots of laughter and teasing. We were poor, but I didn't know it. There was always food on the table and we always got lots of toys for Christmas.

I write about Regency England because I LOVE it. I love to study the time period - the history, the politics, the clothes, the architecture, everything. Will I get things wrong? You bet. Will I make the same mistakes twice. I hope not!

I may not have experienced all of the emotional trauma and angst I write about, but I am a student of human nature. I have seen my share of heroes, ogres, frogs and princes in my travels. I have had long talks with friends and colleagues who have suffered terrible things in their lives. Losing my husband to a drunk driver 14 years ago is something I live with every day.

I think maybe the statement should be amended to "Write from where you are." Intellectually, emotionally, and imaginationally. (Not a word, but you get the point!)

At 6:22 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Maybe it shouldn't be "Write what you know" but "Know what you write."

I believe you should try your best to be accurate in your research (whatever you write) but don't beat yourself up for making mistakes. Sometimes, like Terry said, you just don't know what you don't know.

I'm most annoyed by mistakes that are easily discovered with minimal effort. We've all read them!

At 8:15 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I love this, Delle!

My childhood was even more boring than yours, given that my mother didn't even have asthma, and I had no brothers or sisters to torment me.

So now I write about elves, and I love reading historicals, and don't really care if there are mistakes. No one can know anything with perfect accuracy except herself in the present moment, and there's not much story there.

At 10:41 PM, Blogger Merrillee said...

I'm with Terry. Sometimes, you just don't know what you don't know. Many times I don't know I need to know something until I start writing.


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