B&N Week 68: Write What You Know (Or, Become A Junior Scientist)

| April 10, 2012 | 3 Comments

It’s another glorious Tuesday! The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all manner of things are in the air. Spring has sprung, and beauty is everywhere.

This week, I want to talk to you about something that should be near and dear to your hearts. It’s an old adage, but true: write what you know.

(Huh? I don’t get it.)

I know for a fact that when I was younger, I was terrible as a writer, because I didn’t know anything. I wrote some short stories, I tried writing a novel, and they were all derivative of what I was reading [Stephen King, Roger Zelazny, Brian Lumley, Dean Koonz]. I didn’t get better until I had more life experience under my belt.

Writing is a pretty simple, yet very difficult process. A good writer is first and foremost a people watcher. All stories have to be populated with characters that have to be believable. In order to do that, you have to know what people do, how they react in situations, how they speak. In order to do that learning, you have to do a lot of watching.

What does the life experience do for you? It give you the maturity to allow the characters to live, instead of being cardboard cutouts.

There’s one other thing you need to do if you’re going to be a writer.

You have to study. You want to be a romance writer? Read romance novels and watch romance movies. You want to be a horror writer? Do the same. And the same for science fiction. If you want to do slice of life, just look around you and adapt as necessary.

Write what you know.

(But I wanna write Pen-Man! He’s a superhero, dontchewknow.) Then you should be a junior scientist, because in my opinion, writing superheroes is the hardest thing to do.

My reading tastes were set very early. My very first comic was a DC. I think it was a Justice League [I don’t know because the comic was missing its cover and bottom half of the first page]. It captured my imagination, and I wanted more. The friend who gave it to me let me read some more, and they were all DC’s. Then I stumbled onto Marvel, and they competed in my head for a while, with Marvel gaining more traction as I read more of the universe.

Part of it was the realism. I knew where these stories were taking place. There was no doubt in my mind where NY is, because I can find it on a map. I have a vague notion where Gotham is, and an even vaguer notion where Metropolis is. Star City? Somewhere out west, methinks. Couple the fact that I knew where the stories were taking place with the realism and relevance I found in Marvel, and DC was being quickly left in the dust.

It was then cemented when Marvel debuted the first iteration of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Marvel took the time to put the science in their fiction, making the explanation of how characters’ powers worked as plausible and as scientific as possible, to include the equipment. Blew my mind. Now, compared to DC’s attempt with their Who’s Who, there was no going back. Marvel for life!

DC’s character handbook was focused more on the history of the characters and less on explaining how their characters’ powers worked. I read it, and could see a lot of fuzziness and hand-waving, trying to distract me from what I could see: they didn’t know how they worked, they just did.

This is NOT what I want you to do.

You don’t get to hand-wave. You don’t get to run a line of patter that seems to answer the question without really giving an answer. You’re going to be better than that. You’re going to be consistent with your superheroics and/or science fiction, and you’re going to ground your fiction with science.

Do you need to know the properties of light, what a Dyson sphere is, or the properties of piezoelectricity off the top of your head? Not at all. However, if you’re going to write science fiction, then you’d better be doing your research.

It’s like this, folks: the internet is becoming a replacement memory receptacle, and thanks to Google and other engines like it, that receptacle is extremely searchable. You don’t have to know the information, you just have to know how to search for it. [You do, however, have to know a little bit of what you’re talking about in order to make the best use of your search terms.]

Or, if you’re old-fashioned like me, you can get actual books. (Books!) [Books. Physical ones, even. Analog, for all you digital cats out there.] Read ‘em and put ‘em on your bookshelf for reference. Subscribe to a magazine or two [I suggest Popular Science, Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics], read them, and then keep them for reference. If necessary, to conserve space, clip the articles that you think would be of most use to you, and put them in a file.

There are all kinds of science books out there for the layman. I have a book on physics that I use for reference. I have a regents-level earth science book from back in the day. (Regents?) [It’s a NY thing.] I have binders from Marine Corps boot camp that talks about the muzzle velocity of a bullet when shot from an M16A2 service rifle. I have all kinds of reference materials that I keep on hand, because I don’t know where a story is going to take me.

Readers are going to know when you hand-wave. They’re going to know when you’re making things up and flying by the seat of your pants. You’ll do something or have an explanation of something that will punt a reader right out of a story, and they’ll write in to tell you about it. It will happen. I’m trying to save you from it.

Understand: your readers are going to be smarter than you. Know what that means? You’re smarter than I am. Yes, I’m talking to you. You’re smarter than me. As long as you remember that your readers are smarter than you, you’ll try your hardest to make sure you do right by them, and in doing so, do right by yourself and your stories.

Write what you know.

As a creator, you have to be passionate about something. There’s little reason to tell a story if it were otherwise. Use that passion to make sure your stories are well crafted. Show maturity in what you write.

The world will be watching.

That’s all I have. No homework this week. Enjoy the break.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (3)

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  1. It’s interesting that you wrote about this this week as I just finished discussing science fiction and fantasy with a couple friends of mine. We mainly discussed how the genre is perceived and how the nuances and variations between the different parts of the genres are ignored and how to write [hard] science fiction. We ended up talking about antimatter and the higgs boson and how to extrapolate science fiction concepts from there.

    It was very interesting and made me think a lot about writing sci-fi. I don’t know if there’s point to what I’m saying here aside from thinking aloud so I’ll just continue along that line…

    I think that when people hear “write what you know” they feel very limited and don’t really consider the option that says “then go and learn something new!” I think that’s a great approach to it in making your stories believable with the added bonus of making you more educated.

    Anyways, thanks for this article. I’ve read every single B&N and they’ve become a resource which I refer back to quite often.

  2. Ha, thats quite funny, I made a post on my blog a couple of weeks ago with the exact opposite header “Write about what you know is bad advice”, but ultimatly our articles ended up in a similar place 🙂


  3. Sage advice, Steven. I’m right there with you. I’ve even turned down gigs because I wasn’t profecient in the source material.

    One thing I would add is that you should also live life and gain your own experiences. Don’t just read it or watch it.

    I think I can write a very good fight scene because I used to be a brawler. A good dramatic scene because I’ve lived sorrow as well as happiness. A good porno scene because… Ha ha, just kdding.

    My point is to remember to get your head out of the books sometimes and get out and live. Use your experiences to make a better, more organic story.

    Thanks again, Forbes. See you next week.

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