10 October 2015

Write What You Know?

by B.K. Stevens

On a rainy night in late September (and this year, in Virginia, on just about every night in late September, it rained plenty), I had the pleasure of participating in a Mystery Writers of America panel at George Mason University's Fall for the Book festival. The moderator, fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, opened things up by asking us to respond to a time-honored piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." To what extent, Art asked, did we draw on our own experiences when we created our characters and stories? How much did we push beyond the limits of those experiences?

The question came exactly one week before the release of my young adult mystery, Fighting Chance (The Poisoned Pencil/Poisoned Pen Press). My protagonist is a seventeen-year-old male athlete growing up in a small town in Virginia. I'm a woman, I'm decades past seventeen, I was never an athlete at any age, and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. If it's smart to write what we know, I'm in trouble.

The situation made me think back to a guest blog I wrote several years ago for Sleuths' Ink, a writers' group in Springfield, Missouri. In that blog, I compared the views of several classic authors who express opinions about whether writers should stick to writing about what they know. I decided to go back to that topic in this month's SleuthSayer's post. If two or three people on the planet still remember my old Sleuth's Ink blog--and that's undoubtedly a generous estimate--I can assure you this post will be different. Among other things, two of the authors I'll discuss this time are new.

"Write what you know"--next to "show, don't tell," that's probably the advice fiction writers hear most often. It can feel painfully limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you've never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers' memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward into a barrage of bullets or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or tempting toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else your personal experience has taught you how to do?

Jane Austen stuck to writing what she knew, and she apparently made a conscious decision to do so. In letters written in 1815  and 1816, James Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian, urges her to broaden her horizons. But when he suggests she write about a learned clergyman, Austen says she lacks the necessary education. When Clarke suggests she write a historical romance about the royal house of Belgium, her refusal is more emphatic. "I could no more write a romance than an epic poem," she says. "I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life." Austen insists she should write only about the people, places, and situations she knows best.: "I must keep to my own style, and go on in my own way."

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires.jpgDid she think all writers should follow her example? In an 1816 letter to her nephew Edward, Austen praises his "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." She contrasts them with her own novels, which she describes as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor." Some writers, Austen seems to imply, are right to attempt works with greater "variety" than her own.

It's possible, of course, that she didn't really admire her nephew's writing as much as she claims, and didn't really think so little of her own work. We all know how unreliable beta readers can be. But it's clear she thought some writers are wise to limit themselves to writing about what they know best.

Edith Wharton, in The Writing of Fiction, rejects such limits. "As to experience," she says, "the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break." The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn't experience itself. Even if your experiences are limited, your imagination can help you use what you've experienced as a basis for writing about what you haven't.

The Writing of FictionIf writers don't need to experience the things they write about, what do they need? Wharton sees two things as essential. First, writers must have emotional depth: "they must have hearts that can break." Could an emotionally stunted person create characters with powerful feelings, characters readers will care about? Also, writers must spend time reflecting about the events and emotions they've experienced, trying to understand them. Writers may not immediately recognize the significance in their own experiences. After an experience "remains long enough in the mind," however, its potential as the basis for fiction may become clear. 

Wharton's words echo Wordsworth's statement that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Both writers seem to agree that we should write not when experiences are new and emotions are raw but after some time has passed, after we've had time to think about what what happened. I'm struck, too, by Wharton's use of the word "brood." It calls to mind the image of a hen brooding over her eggs, warming them, nurturing the life within them. If we brood about our experiences, will we awaken the hidden life they hold? If so, maybe it's the quality of the brooding that matters most, rather than the experiences themselves. Maybe brooding is the key to finding a way to, in Wharton's phrase, "make a little go a long way."

Flannery O'Connor agrees. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," she has nothing good to say about people who "think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had." "These people," she says, "should be stifled with all deliberate speed." Not all Senators can write riveting political thrillers, and not all police detectives can write gripping mysteries.

If you're meant to be a writer, O'Connor says, you don't need a wide variety of experiences: "The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it." Like Wharton, O'Connor emphasizes the importance of contemplating or brooding upon experience.

Flannery-O'Connor 1947.jpg Both Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor led quiet lives. Neither ever married. Both died young. Unlike Austen, however, O'Connor sometimes chose to write about bizarre characters and violent situations that lay far outside her personal experience. These two authors chose different paths, but both created enduring works of fiction.

Henry James agrees a good writer can "make something out of a little experience." In "The Art of Fiction," James describes experience as a "huge spider-web" that can catch "every air-borne particle in its tissue." Like a spider web, an imaginative mind "takes to itself the faintest hints of life." A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.

To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants. When, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to be able to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James she'd simply passed an open door in Paris and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. "The glimpse made a picture," James says. "It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience." Writers don't need much actual experience, not if they have active, fertile minds. The crucial thing, James says, is to "try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!"

Henry James.jpg"Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost"--has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having much to say about them. Other people can grasp at "the faintest hints of life" and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.

Write what you know? Sure. But if your talents and interests lead you in other directions, you can also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience any single human life supplies.

If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into what it feels like to be locked in a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and infuse it into a situation you've never directly experienced. If you've observed closely enough, if you've brooded long enough, if you've analyzed deeply enough and imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.

(One final note--when this post appears, I'll be at Bouchercon. I'll have access to my husband's laptop, but I hate laptops. It takes me many minutes to peck out a single sentence, and I utter many unpleasant words while I'm doing it. I'll try, but I may not do a good job of replying to comments on Saturday. But I'll reply to every one once I get home on Sunday.)


  1. I think for your first work, it's an advantage to "write what you know," because then you can concentrate on mastering the important aspects of writing fiction (plot, motivation, characterization, dialogue, viewpoint, etc.) rather than research. But at this stage of my writing career, I think "Write what you want to know" is best. Doing research into careers you haven't had, reading history - all that is part of the delight of being an author. You can write the characters you want to be, and live in their world for a little time.

  2. I like what you say here a great deal! But I would like to add a caveat, which is that it doesn't work as well across cultural boundaries. I don't want to speak about this matter as it applies to cultures I don't personally know, so I will just say that I am an Indigenous person from North America and that many of us are pretty tired of reading books (starting with Fennimore Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans") that purport to represent people from cultures the author doesn't remotely understand. When the author uses his/her imagination to do this, they can't help but project their own culture onto the other. Worse, when they consciously try not to do this they wind up projecting ideas about cultural evolution (in which Native or Indigenous cultures exhibit "primitive" characteristics such as superstitiousness or an idyllic "noble savage" connection to nature) onto our cultures. The problem is that it perpetuates stereotypes that are actually damaging because they make real cross-cultural communication very difficult. (As an educator as well as writer who specializes in trying to facilitate cross-cultural communication, I know how really serious the problem is. We can't start communicating well until we unpack all the mistaken ideas that have been passed as good information or knowledge in print and filmed stories about Native people.) But I think as long as the people we imagine inhabit the same worldview we do, and hold the same basic paradigms about the nature of reality, then imagination works very well to help us write about things we have not personally experienced.

  3. Many 19th century writers were praised for their highly detailed novels, authors who’d never visited the Orient, the Yukon, South America, The Russian Steppes, Africa, or the Ottoman Empire. What the best had in common was deep research.

    As far as writing from the viewpoint of young or old, male or female, Asian, African, or Indian, it’s a matter of empathy and getting inside the head of those characters. I can trace indigenous ancestry through my mother’s side, but I think that could be compatible with Anon’s thoughts on the topic.

    A point of confusion even among American Indians is that First Nation cultures are not homogeneous. It’s not fair to readers as well as AmerInd culture to conflate practices of the many Algonquin offshoots with, say, Plains Indians or Pueblos.

    One solution is to encourage indigenous writers. That’s not to suggest publishers should compromise on quality, but that workshops, like Tony Hillerman’s, could seed not merely stories of Indian culture, but talented native writers who then choose their own genres.

  4. Leigh, I agree it would be nice to see more encouragement of Indigenous writers. In fact, there are a number of workshops for such in this country, run by successful writers such as Linda Hogan (Chickasaw; her book Mean Spirit was nominated for a Pulitzer; it's got most of the elements mystery and crime readers appreciate, as it happens). Of course we have many powerful Native authors, including N. Scott Momaday (Pawnee), whose "House Made of Dawn" did win a Pulitzer, and Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) and Paula Gunn Allen (also Laguna Pueblo). All are fairly prolific writers, especially Hogan. The strange thing is, even though we do have quite a few Native authors the author of "Indian books" that springs to the minds of most non-Native people (or even non-First Nations people in Canada) is Tony Hillerman. Granted, he's done very well learning not only Dine and Hopi culture but also picking up essential elements and nuances of Indigenous worldview (which actually is amazingly homogenous, though cultures are not, and why we are able to have Fourth World dialogues and meetings internationally). And I myself enjoy his mysteries. But he's a white guy. Why isn't Linda Hogan's work as well known? Why are her and Momaday's books largely read by non-Native people only in college courses? It's absolutely not because they're not as good as Hillerman's work. So I'm not sure the problem is that we don't have Native writers or even Native-run workshops to train new writers. The books are getting published. But they remain largely marginalized.

  5. Brain glitch: Momaday is Kiowa, not Pawnee. He'd have my head for that. :-)

  6. Great post! And congratulations on Fighting Chance. I live relatively near the offices of Poisoned Pen/Pencil Press, in Scottsdale, and often shop at the Poisoned Pen bookstore next door. I'm on their email list, but don't always have the time to read through the list of authors visiting that month, so if you come out for a reading or signing, please let me know. I'd love to go!


  7. "Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost." Worthy advice! Thank you B.K. And thank you Henry!

  8. I'm back from Bouchercon now. It was wonderful--among other things, after years of online friendship, I finally got to meet fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd, and also met newer SleuthSayer friends such as Rob Lopresti. I'm delighted to come home to such an interesting range of comments.

    Melodie, I think fiction writers' first works are almost bound to be closely tied to their own experiences to some extent. As you say, writing about what we know best allows us to concentrate on learning more about how to write. And we all have things we want to say about our own experiences, about the worlds we live in and the people we know. It's natural to begin by writing about those. When we feel more confident about writing, research helps us reach beyond our own experiences and, as you say, live other people's lives in other people's worlds. And, of course, research is fascinating in itself.

    Anonymous and Leigh, you raise important, difficult issues. If we don't include minority characters in our fiction, we run the risk of presenting a distorted, incomplete view of society, and of offending people by excluding them; if we do include minority characters--that is, characters from minorities to which we don't belong--we run the risk of getting it wrong, and of offending people by seeming to exploit them. When I included deaf characters in Interpretation of Murder, I worried about unintentionally stereotyping them (or of being too timid and making them too perfect), but I also think it's a shame that there aren't more deaf characters in fiction, including mystery fiction. Research helps, empathy helps, and paying attention to readers' responses helps, but I don't think there are any easy answers here.

    Dixon, I'd love to go to the Poisoned Pen bookstore some day--it's a long way from Virginia, but it sounds like a fascinating place. If I ever make it there, I'll definitely announce it here.

    Jeff, I love that sentence, too. When I was teaching English, I often put it at the beginning of my syllabi. It's excellent advice not only for writers but also for readers of literature.


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