On Writing What You Know

Traditional advice to new writers is to “write what you know”. This is sometimes much easier said than done. For instance, if you’re set on writing the Great American Novel, and if that novel is going to be about living with polar bears in barren arctic wastes, knowing nothing about polar bears or the arctic may prove somewhat of a hindrance.

In my own case, there are several things I know a lot about: medicine (I’m a retired physician), amateur radio (I’m a long time “ham” radio operator), radio controlled model airplanes, computers, playing the guitar… In other words, I know a lot about stuff that, perhaps other than medicine, doesn’t lend itself very well to writing the GAN. And medicine has, in a manner of speaking, been done to death in novels. Everything from Love Story to The Andromeda Strain. It’s hard to be original these days.

So, what’s the writer to do? Should the polar bear be a guitar player in a rock band? Probably not, but working what you know into your plot in some basic way can often be useful.

In my book, Zendoscopy, I tell the story of Sherman, a square peg sort of kid whose character is somewhat elaborated upon by showing his involvement in ham radio, something I know about. I also used ham radio in my story, Spacebraid, the anchor story in Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe. Neither story is about ham radio, but using it as a device to illustrate character or upon which to hang a plot turn was very useful.

Overall, as a generalist by nature (some would say dilettante), I know a little about a lot more than a lot about a little, except in a few areas. Those few areas in which I do have pretty deep knowledge mostly (except for medicine) don’t lend themselves to anchoring a whole novel, but as a generalist, I find strength in writing about broader issues. Thus, the coming of age story in Zendoscopy, or the ecologic catastrophe in Spacebraid. In other words, I took my general world view and knowledge, hung the plot on it, and then spiced it up with the smaller specifics about which I know a lot and which would likely ring true to the reader.

Having said this, I would add that there’s nothing wrong with writing about just what you know, as long as you are targeting it for a similarly oriented audience. So, I’ve written about radio controlled aircraft for a modeling magazine targeted to people who fly radio controlled airplanes. And I’ve written about ham radio for publications aimed at amateur radio operators. But those pieces were not novels.

So, what’s the bottom line? It’s that if you’re writing a novel, after settling on your overall plot, there’s every reason to sprinkle it with what you know to add color and depth to your characterizations or unexpected twists in the story line. Of course, unless you’re writing fantasy, keep it believable. You may not get far if your gritty detective story has a scene with a polar bear playing “Light My Fire” on a ukulele in Maui.


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