“Write what you know.” That was Mrs. Frances Toepfer’s advice on the first day of English Composition class at Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver more years ago than I wish to acknowledge. She then raised her glasses from the chain around her neck, studied us for a moment, expecting, I suppose, questions. When none came, she lowered her glasses and we got back to work on the assignment she’d just given us.
We all knew what we’d done on our summer vacations, as well as the gamut of experiences from our American middle class upbringing. We knew other things, too. Although I wasn’t interested in comic book superheroes, many of my peers were. That’s what they knew. I, on the other hand, also attended Mr. Dobrovolny’s Russian I course just down the hall, where he attempted to teach us the language, but succeeded in recounting vivid images of the Russian people and their history. That fascinated me. That’s what I knew.
Taking Mrs. Toepfer’s advice to heart, I wrote a story about a Siberian hermit whose two sons had gone off to fight the Nazis in WWII and never came home. Chosen to appear in Lincoln High School’s annual literary publication, Touchstone, I’d titled my story “Kolya’s Valley.”
I recall a fellow contributor to Touchstone—you know the one; the kid who had six separate works, poems and prose, in the collection to everyone else’s single contribution—who told me he really liked my story because it reminded him of Hemingway’s style. After I’d taken a closer look at Hemingway’s writing, my clipped sentences terse to a fault did indeed reflect Hemingway and I thought that was pretty cool. I hadn’t intended to emulate him, but what the hell… Moreover, I’d become sort of a published writer. Not that that meant anything to high school kids in general, but it did to me.
Writing what you know is a good idea. Too many times, though, folks write what they think they know, resulting in Aha! moments which, when found, usually provide cause for the careful reader to set the storytelling aside as unworthy of their time, sending them over to Goodreads to point out the author’s failings.
I was reading a private eye novel not long ago, enjoying it for the most part, and then it happened: The protagonist pulled out his .45 semiautomatic, slid the slide back to seat a cartridge, fired, took cover, and then slid the slide back again for his next shot. Oops. Nah, that’s not how that weapon works. I didn’t hurry over to Goodreads to shame the author, but did look for something else to read.
Careful readers expect credibility from authors. There’s a bond created between authors and readers that lasts as long as what the author has to say is credible, as long as the author provides evidence s/he knows what the hell s/he’s talking about.
I suppose careless readers can stomach careless writing. But who among us would admit to either?
Then again, fantastical writing where the author creates new worlds, visits ancient universes, creates as yet unknown beasts, tweaks known beasts with new twists, or other chimera from the wildest meanderings of their mind probably allows, no, begs for the kind of incredulity we love to explore and believe because it takes us away from our otherwise grounded reality. By what standard do we then judge that author’s credibility?
I wrote a novel not too long ago that included shifters, or what my Navajo character in the book called skinwalkers. I’d never ventured into this realm before, though the plethora of like subject matter, werewolves mostly, seemed to constitute about three-quarters of all novels offered on Amazon at the time, providing me with ample research material before beginning my novel. What I found, however, was a veritable bottomless pit of takes on what these critters did or didn’t do, what they looked like, what their hierarchy was (hierarchies are apparently very important to werewolves), and other details that seemed, oh, affected—the kind of incredulity I really had no interest in experiencing. Then it occurred to me the Navajo peoples’ lore touched on skinwalkers, and wouldn’t it be more worth my time to see what they had to say about them? It was more worth my time, and what my research gave me came from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
Write what you know. Alternatively, perhaps better said, don’t write anything before you research what it is you want to write about, using credible sources to glean at least the basics. (No, you don’t have to seat the cartridge manually with your semiautomatic weapon after the first shot. It does it all by itself.) Then again, if you’re creating worlds out of whole cloth, you’re actually writing what you and only you know. You’re the only credible source. In which case, I guess it’s your job to write well enough so the reader is willing to spend some time with you, to let their reality become yours however incredulous it may be.