Write What You Can Imagine
I’m welcoming urban fantasy/paranormal author Matthew Lee Adams to the blog today. So, without further ado, here are Matthew’s thoughts:
“Write what you know” is an often repeated bit of advice for writers. It’s such a simple concept, and it should never be taken literally.
Rarely do authors write “what they know.”
What a writer does instead is take knowledge and observations and use these to bring an imagined story to life. The things we have seen and experienced bring authenticity to what we write about. And often, it’s only in nuances, little subtle brush-strokes. Or it may be hidden in themes or simply provide a setting.
Science fiction writers have for the most part (as far as I know) never been in space let alone explored the worlds they write about. Writers of historical fiction have never time-traveled (I can say this with more certainty). Many romance authors have admitted that they lead everyday lives that are no more exciting than any other person’s.
It’s true that some writers will use background or experiences to shape stories. But other than autobiographical accounts (and many of the more entertaining ones are, shall we say, “enhanced” to make them more appealing) we don’t really write about ourselves. Probably because most of us are really sort of boring when we take a good look at the realities of our lives. Or at least, we think we are. Or we think others might think so if they only knew.
A good writer is above all else also a good observer. Good observation is a painter’s palette. The writer knows how to mix and dab and touch – just enough to make the story we imagine become real to the readers who enjoy it. They’ll visualize it by identifying these small strokes of color and filling in the rest with their own imagination.
Writing “what you know” runs the risk of data-dump. Anything that ends in the word “dump” is not attractive.
There is nothing wrong with leveraging extensive knowledge or delving into considerable research to weave within a story and make it stronger. Michael Crichton famously did this by imbuing his works with enough science to lend credibility. But on the whole? They were thrillers, and tense rides through storylines that he imagined. I don’t think it was the science behind extracting DNA and growing dinosaurs that kept people reading “Jurassic Park.” The science was only a foundation for the stories themselves. With that analogy, would we rather live in a house, with our favorite rooms and décor and personal touches? Or sit on a bare slab?
What a writer wants to do is to connect with a reader through the familiar, and the familiar are things we observe and that we know our readers will recognize. Many sci-fi authors have always written what I consider “social science fiction.” They bring elements that are universally familiar to people into their stories. Science is still a part of the fabric, but the strength of the story lies within social themes readers can relate to – race, class and social status, us-and-them, even religion. The same is true for a lot of high fantasy.
Observation is also what allows us to make any character feel real. Neither gender really “knows” what it’s like to be the other. But authors of both genders have always written compelling male and female characters nevertheless. It comes down to observation and distilling what we see so that only a few brushstrokes are needed for a reader to recognize and feel they know a character. Heavy-handedness does no character a good service. We only need enough for the reader to fill in the rest.
I would tell any aspiring writer not to fret about what they do or don’t know. Instead, I’d advise to rely upon imagination and to be keen observers, learning how to bring elements of what they see into their stories. Authenticity is about knowing which details will cause a reader to nod with recognition of the familiar – not drowning them in details. When the touch is just right, it frees a reader to share the imagination of the writer. That’s the kind of connectedness that we seek.
Find out more about Matthew and his books: