Knowing What You Write

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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.

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9 comments to Knowing What You Write

  • LOL! I won’t say I told you so. No. I won’t. I WON’T!
    (hand over mouth) Mmme-denndnehdgg-ooo.
    Man, this is hard!

  • Beatriz

    It’s the small details, done wrong, that can yank a reader out of the story. Why should I trust an author who is creating some elaborate magical world if they can’t even get “normal” details right?

    My ex hated most medical dramas because so much of the medicine was wrong. He couldn’t just follow the plot because the glaring medical mistakes kept getting in the way of the story.

    I’ve been known to toss book across the room in frustration because the mundane details were inaccurately portrayed without a reason.

  • Yeah, Beatriz, I know exactly what you mean. For more than 20 years now, I’ve been watching TV shows and movies with a Stanford-trained scientist. It’s no picnic….

    Great post, Misty. It’s amazing how a dose of emotional reality, well-drawn characters, and some well-placed research on background things like smith-work, wheelwrighting, and other medieval crafts can make magic seem perfectly authentic. Knowing what we write. Lovely phrase, that.

  • On the flipside of the coin, gonna play devil’s advocate, I’d rather see my favorite hero shrug off pain than whine about it or sit in one spot because it hurts too much. Honestly that’s reality, I’m not necessarily reading or watching for reality. I wanna be able to go, “man such and such is a bad-@ss. I couldn’t do that!” Like for example, Locke on Lost…pick any point where he’s been hurt.

    Sure, it’s completely and utterly impossible for most people to shrug off damage and to keep going, but these are our heroes. These are people that I want to do the impossible when they have to. I’ve seen people with dislocated shoulders in movies walk all through some forbidden jungle and have some companion wrench the thing back in place right there just so that they can keep going. Seen people with compound leg fractures drag or limp themselves over to some strange device to save the world despite the blood loss and agonizing pain and I don’t think twice about it because it’s fantasy. It’s larger than life. It’s not real life. When someone gets shot or stabbed in the gut and they continue to fight or plan the battle I don’t yell at the TV or toss the book across the room, even though I very well know what it feels like to have a broke open (the tech term is perforated) bowel. I’ve had one, it’s fall on the floor quivering in a ball, screaming agony, and I too have a pretty high pain threshold. I think it’s cool that my hero has the massive will to continue on to do the things that no one else could in the face of adversity.

    If you had told me that she had a dislocated shoulder and you told me of how much agony she was in, but the rage blotted it out, though some small part of her mind still registered it and she managed to kill her enemy before passing out from the pain, I woulda cheered. Because she did what no one else could do. Because she’s a hero. Though, if you told me she was actually still using that hand to fight with, then the aw c’mon would’ve come out. 😉

    Then again, I’ve never had a problem switching my mind between reality and fantasy. Switching off the parts that want to go, aw c’mon! when something happens that seems to go against what would really happen if they were real people. Some people have a hard time doing that, it’s just their nature. Like a friend of ours that can’t watch The Matrix or Wanted because he can’t get past how reality works.

    Now, if it’s your focus in a novel to create real people that react like real people to pain then I’d definitely agree that a person should research how a wound will affect a real person. I also agree still that you should still know what you’re writing, so that when you break those rules you know you are doing it and why. I’m just saying it’s not always a necessity to adhere to what happens in real life because the people we’re writing about aren’t always cut from the same stuff as you or me.

    The fakey looking CPR thing on TV though has a reason, I was told once by a CPR spec. Doing it right on a healthy person can actually hurt them, so you do it wrong, but make it look at least close.

  • But yeah, I absolutely agree that you should do your research and know what you’re writing about. If you don’t know how a sailing ship operates and you want one in your world, best take a trip to the library. If you don’t know what a ballista is, but you want your army to have one you’ll need to go look it up.

  • Daniel said, “Locke on Lost…with compound leg fractures drag or limp themselves over to some strange device to save the world despite the blood loss and agonizing pain and I don’t think twice about it because it’s fantasy.”

    I watched that whole scene with fingers before my eyes – it was too much for me. And last night, when they were…well, since I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, when they were doing what they were doing to Locke. 😮 *huge wracking shivers*

  • I think getting the mundane details right isn’t just important for verisimilitude – it’s also one of the best parts of being a writer. Taking lessons on horseback riding or firing a musket or doing whatever kind of fun research it takes to know what we write is so exciting for me.

    Though … it does have the dark side of being one of the best ways to procrastinate. 😉

    And for me, superhuman feats are great, but only if the author sells it really well. It can’t just be “she shrugged off the pain and killed the bad guys.” I want to know how horribly painful and difficult it is, and that the need is so great that that she fumbles through it, screaming all the way, trying to overcome this handicap.

  • Chris Branch

    Misty, your short story, was that before or after you read Barry P. Longyear’s _Enemy Mine_? Because I think he stole your idea… 😉

    My pet peeve has to do with sailing terminology. I’m no pirate, but I know something of what they’d have to do to sail, so it bothers me when writers have them tacking when sailing downwind, or something else that doesn’t make sense. I know it’s minor stuff that doesn’t matter to the plot, but it still takes me out of the story momentarily.

  • A small off-shoot of the medical aspect of your topic, I find myself indecisive sometimes about dealing with injuries and medical training in the usual medieval fantasy setting. On the one hand, accuracy gives you the medicine of the day (plus a little magic, if the world goes that way), but on the other hand, no reader is going to wait for leeches to fix a broken leg.

    I turn to my sister-in-law, an RN, for medical info sometimes, but she doesn’t really wrap her head around the whole medieval medicine notion. If my heroes get cut, she wants it stitched, no matter the size, because that’s the right thing to do. I’m not even sure when stitching became common practice. It’s a detail I can’t seem to find.

    And I can relate to the lack of believability in a lot of tv shows. My husband is in law enforcement, so he absolutely cringes at the way investigators just wander through crime scenes in their street clothes, touching everything and getting ‘feelings’ about what must have happened. 😉