Sunday, May 2, 2010

Knowing -- Setting the Limits to What You Write

An article in the April 1 issue of the online mag, , set off a quiet rumble of protest inside me -- that idea of writing only what you know. The author professes the idea that there are ways of stretching the rule a bit, but then goes on to really pretty much stick to it. She advises writers should tap into whatever they are "expert" or familiar with, such as a lawyer using his knowledge to write a legal thriller (hmm... what bestselling author do we know who does that???) Okay, I will buy that. But then the author says settings should reflect where one has lived for a significant amount of time, and only then can it sound authentic.

If this is what the author really believes, I disagree. The idea of writing what you know should include what you research. And let's face it, in this day and age you can research anything! That includes locations, time frames, professions, scientific know-how, and the list goes on. We have the resources, and we need to use them. Sure, living in a place can lend itself to making the setting "authentic", but there's nothing to stop a writer from networking and researching to get a handle on what's needed to describe a place, or to find any other info that validates the story.

So, in one respect, I agree with the author: take advantage and use what you DO know. However, I'd say, don't stop there. After all, the writing world and all its stories are our fantasies growing in our imaginations. If we want to write about the Shire, home to Bilbo Baggins or Dorothy's OZ and her trek through munchkin land, what's to stop us? After all, maybe we've never been there, but the places are familiar inside our heads. Right?

What are your views? Do you think it's too much of a gamble to venture out into realms we've never personally experienced? Or is the sky truly the limit?


Maxwell Cynn said...

I think it depends a lot on how important the setting is. As you said, in fantasy or futuristic scifi location is created in our head. If your novel depends heavily on realistic location then you may need at least some real world knowledge.
On content, it may be best to know your subject intimatly, but part of my enjoyment of writing is research. I like learning new things and broadening my knowledge base. Same goes for location. Setting a novel somewhere you havn't been is a good reason to visit. And sometimes a visitors eye picks up details a native misses.

teacherwriter said...

Max...I agree. If facts/info about the setting need to appear often in one's story, it is crucial to know that setting well. That goes for stories with lots of technical or scientific info. Still, if you are great at researching, networking, and have plenty of contacts to chat with -- and you enjoy the process like you do -- then it's possible. Hard work, but possible. Thanks for your comments, Max :-)

April said...

My recently completed novel is set in the South, which is extremely familiar to me since I've lived in it all my life. The time period it covers, however, is 1950-1970, which is well before my time. A decent amount of research had to go into the story in order for me to make certain details believable, and I wouldn't be surprised if I got a couple of things wrong. However, I'm well convinced that this novel couldn't have been set in any other location or time. I put a good amount of work into it and am proud of what I've learned. And why should I refrain from putting it to paper just because I haven't lived it? Is someone else going to write it, perhaps?

teacherwriter said...

Yes! Exactly what I thought when I read the article. Think how many wonderful stories would never have been written if people had believed they couldn't because of that. My second novel takes place in an area I am personally very familiar with, but like you, I had the time setting in the fifties. I researched, and researched to find the details I needed. And like you, April, I'm glad and proud of it!