As the author of over 45 books, I’m here to tell you that the advice to write what you know is full of crap. The adage goes something like this: “If you really like fishing or collecting stamps and you know a lot about it, write about fishing or stamp collecting.” But it’s a limiting fallacy that binds imagination. As far as we know, Shakespeare never left England, yet his plays are set in Italy, Rome, Denmark, and ostensibly even in the New World (The Tempest). Ray Bradbury never visited Mars (The Martian Chronicles); neither Tolkien or his writing buddy C. S. Lewis ever visited the fantastic worlds they created (Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia); Stephen King never met a vampire or an evil clown (It), George Lucas never visited “a galaxy far, far away” (Star Wars); and J. K. Rowling never visited a magical realm with a castle-like school named Hogwarts (nor is she a witch). Writers write from imagination, plain and simple. We create worlds with accompanying histories and mythologies, and we fill them with people and characters. The word fiction implies the act of invention, not the act of knowing.
I learned my lesson the hard way. Almost a decade ago, I wanted to write a novel set in Germany during World War II. I had it all planned out. It would have been amazing and beautiful, a cousin to books like The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. But my long-time editor told me quite pointedly, “You can’t write that book. What do you know about Germany, Nazis, or the Holocaust? Stick to writing about what you know.” I made the mistake of listening to him. The story has languished in a dark, forgotten corner of my mind. But I’ve finally decided to write the book. To hell with his counsel. I know human beings; I am one. I know love and loss, grief and happiness. I understand how we all struggle inside, how we strive in the face of adversity, how we revel in small triumphs. I have felt sorrow and joy and indifference. I can write about human beings. As for the setting, I can read books, research on the Internet, look at maps, ask people, or even go visit. I can write about what I can know and you can, too.
Adhering to the old adage has cost me dearly. Don’t let it cost you.
John E. Smelcer is the author of over forty-five books, including numerous award winning novels such as The Trap, The Great Death, Lone Wolves, Edge of Nowhere, and Savage Mountain. With Joseph Bruchac he co-edited Native American Classics(2013). John is featured in issue 294.6, November-December 2009.
Animation inspired by Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle. (When the mortal turtledove dies, the phoenix, his beloved, enters his funeral pyre and burns down with him; then a new being is born from their ashes.) FurryTiger