When I was in high school, I wrote a short story about a catlike alien soldier whose ship crash-landed on a planet under the control of her enemies. She reported her position, but her people ordered her to make her way to a less dangerous spot for retrieval. Along the way, she found a wounded enemy soldier, and together they helped each other survive. (Give me a break, I was 15. 😀 ) The teacher graded it and gave it back, with the suggestion that I should write what I knew, and “steer clear of all that daydreamy stuff” (her words). This advice, admittedly, floored me. I wanted to write about magic and space and creatures that couldn’t possibly exist. I was at a loss as to how to learn such things. Other people were writing about unicorns and time travel and telekinetic aliens, so why couldn’t I? It took me years to realize the teacher had been right, though not in the way she thought she was. It’s not that we should write what we know – we should know what we write.
We’ve all run into a situation in which the author clearly had no idea what she was writing about. The questing novel, for example, in which the party stops for the night and eats stew for dinner. Have you ever made stew? Takes ages. A party travelling a long distance would more likely have packed dry meat and bread. If they happen to hunt and catch meat, they won’t waste time stewing it when roasting is so much quicker. I have a pet peeve about the way CPR is portrayed in movies and on television, because I’ve had to be certified in it for the past 20 years. The people on screen are almost always doing it wrong, so wrong that it’s a miracle it ever works. Not knowing what you’re writing about is a sure way to lose your reader. Luckily there are ways to keep that from happening.
When I was writing the original draft of Mad Kestrel, I depended on my writing group to tell me when something didn’t sound authentic. I did the same for them. Now and then, though, one or another of us wouldn’t listen. Me, for example. I had written a scene in which Kestrel injured her shoulder, and in the beginning, I decided she’d popped it out of joint. Immediately after this happened, she had to fight with two bad guys. Upon hearing these pages, Faith shook her head, and said that a dislocated shoulder would have been too painful for Kestrel to do much more than walk to the nearest help. I knew she was right, but I didn’t listen. I liked the way the scene played out way too well, and I didn’t want to rewrite it. (They call it “killing your darlings” but we’ll talk about that another time. :D)
Several months later, my family and I went to the mountains for the weekend with my best friend. She, my husband and my son all hit the bunny slopes to try skiing, while I relaxed in the hot tub. (I know my limitations, and strapping long boards on my feet has never sounded appealing!) Suddenly the phone rang. My husband had fallen and dislocated his shoulder. I had to pick him up from the first aid office, and drive, in the dark, on swervy mountain roads, in the snow, to take him to the nearest hospital. My husband has a pretty high pain threshold, but he was in agony. Every bump, every curve of the road made him groan. We reached the hospital, got him settled in with the doctor, and then it hit me. This was exactly what Kestrel would have been feeling. She couldn’t have managed to fight anyone. When I got home, I sat down and rewrote the whole scene, making it just a banged-up shoulder instead. Because now I knew what I was writing.
Can you write something without ever seeing or feeling it? Sure. But if you want the authenticity that makes readers connect to your work, you really should dig deep from what you know. If you’ve suffered loss, or grief, or pain, draw from those feelings to make your characters’ behavior honest. If you’re sending your adventurers on a long horseback trip, go take a couple of riding lessons so you’ll know how it feels to be in the saddle for a while (not to mention getting a handle on how mischievous some horses can be.) You don’t have to be a fifteenth level wizard to write about magic. Read what other people have done, and pay close attention to why their magic systems work.
And for goodness’ sake, if you have a friend with experience, listen when she tells you to rewrite a scene.