Write What You Know.
(And You Know More than You Think)
By Dan Baldwin
Writers are told to “write what you know.” But what if you think your genre makes it impossible to know? Take heart; you know far more than you think.
You’re writing a Western, but you’ve never been in a confrontation in an 1870s saloon. If you’re writing a steamy romance about Scotland in the 1700s, how do you know how the duel in the Highlands went? Let’s say you’re writing science fiction. How the heck do you describe the bar fight between the Slugorthian and the Muggflanger down in the LSD bar?
Obviously, none of us know the ins and outs of confrontations in faraway places with strange sounding names. (Have you ever met a Slugorthian on LSD?) So how do we get around that literary blockade?
Transplant the information you have stored up in your life experience into your scene. For example, you’ve never been in a dangerous confrontation in the Crystal Palace Saloon in old Tombstone. But you have been to a board meeting. You have certainly been to a committee meeting. You’ve seen conflict in the club locker room, the Friday night card game, the break room at work, the golf course, the supermarket and any number of other places.
Use that experience to fuel the scene in your book, short story, screenplay or Internet post.
For example, think back to that committee meeting. The pushy chairman with his own agenda becomes the greedy cattle baron determined to take over the town. The yes men on the committee are his hired guns. That quiet guy from accounting becomes the alcoholic doctor trying to find some dignity before cashing in his chips. The attractive woman across the table is the school marm hoping to civilize an uncivilized town. Or, she could be the soiled dove with the heart of gold. The others members are the defenseless towns folk fearful and in need of a hero. You, well, of course, you’re John Wayne.
Take the events and conflict of that meeting or confrontation, transpose them to your work, expand and exaggerate where appropriate. “I call this meeting to order” becomes “All right, you bunch of sod-busters, this is how it’s gonna be.” You’ll be surprised at how accurate your scene becomes – because it’s real. It’s based on genuine human emotion and interaction. Readers will respond because your words reach them with the common language of emotion regardless of whether it’s spoken in cowboy drawl, Scottish brogue or Slugorthian syntax.
Plug in the details as needed. For example, the greedy cattle baron’s number one gunslinger no longer carries “a big gun.” He carries “a Colt Walker, a heavy weapon, but a comfortable fit in the big hands of Bad Bob.” Details are important. But you can dig up the details you need in books, online, in interviews, and through personal research.
The key to successful writing, however, is the true human emotion you put into your work.
But you already know that, don’t you.