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HANDYMAN'S HELPER - Alma Alexander - Write What You Know

“Write What You Know”

Alma Alexander

© 2011

Ask any writer about the three most frequent pieces of advice that they were given when they were neophytes starting out, and you will likely get a selection of three: “Show Don’t Tell”, “Avoid Passive Voice”, “Write What You Know”.

Those first two can be considered remotely useful, in fact. For the most part. Rules are made to be broken eventually – when you’ve had enough practice to know HOW – but in general it showing action instead of describing it to us in a long infodump or making the language it is described in more active (i.e. using actual verbs to describe actions rather muttering that somebody “was doing” something) generally makes a piece or writing pacier, more involving, better.

That last one, though. Hmm.

People start out on this writing lark at different ages and stages in their lives. Some of us have scribbled since early childhood; others don’t put pen to paper (or, these days, fingers to keyboard) until they are teens, or in their thirties, or later. It all depends on when we start Hearing Our Voices, or at the very least when we decide to admit that there are Voices There To Be Heard and Heeded. But given that vast disparity of ages and the sheer range of life experience that is encompassed therein, that “Write What You Know” thing becomes… problematical at best.

What does a thirteen-year-old know? What does, say, a thirty-year-old woman who married at nineteen because she was pregnant actually know? What, for that matter, does a fifty-year-old early-retiree CEO of what was a startup company which that particular savvy CEO knew enough to cash out of before the bust actually know? (And, more to the point, why are the specific things that they might know of any POSSIBLE interest to anybody other than themselves and a fairly narrow sub-section of their peer group…?)

If we were to follow this piece of advice to the letter, none of us would write about anything other than our own back yard and our own particular and specific racial and cultural group. We would never know about any kind of music other than what our parents listen to. We would not be reading books written by ANY other member of the human race who has qualifications other than those that make it possible to fit right in within your own neighbourhood. We would never look up, never look sideways, never raise our eyes from the things that were right there in front of us – for those are the things that we know, absolutely. That nineteen-year-old pregnant girl who got married because of that child can’t know what it would have been like to go on to college and get a degree in literature, or medicine, or theoretical physics; she will never have played a game of chess; she will never have read, or probably had the time or the interest to read, a book about the life of a contemporary of hers living in some country far distant from her own and under circumstances which would strike her (if she knew about them) as either so different as to be irreconcilable and incomprehensible or else eerily similar to her own.

If we were to write only what we, personally, have experienced through our own senses our worlds would be severely curtailed. If you were born in the deep south of the United States, for instance, you could never be permitted to write about winter. If you live in Kansas, or in the Maldives, or in Mongolia, you must never mention a mountain (because of course plains are all that exists). You must never so much as utter a syllable about a person whose skin colour is different from your own, or who was born into a culture speaking a different language. You are absolutely prohibited from writing about even the next town along the main highway – because it is not YOUR town, you do not live there, and therefore you do not “know” it.

If you want to write fantasy and science fiction, about worlds that are completely imaginary and beyond our ken, you are PLUMB out of luck. You could not possibly “know” anything about any possible alien species. Or about Elves or Ents. Or about sparkling vampires for that matter. All that world of the imagination is behind iron gates which are closed and padlocked and festooned with great brooding signs which say “DO NOT ENTER”.

The truth of it is, of course, that like all good things the “write what you know” rule is a good servant, but a bad master.

There are few things in today’s wired world that you absolutely positively cannot know, or cannot learn about. You are likely to have good friends whom you’ve never met and whom you might be unlikely to ever meet in Real Life because they happen to live half the planet away from you. The idea of an ocean or a mountain is a computer click away.

I myself firmly believe that it is my bounden duty – as a human being, as a writer – to take on those iron gates and bust open that rusty padlock and toss away those warning signs and usher everyone in to play in the fields of the imagination.

There is no need to throw the “what you know” thing away completely, though – that’s throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. There are times when you can lean on what your own experiences have taught you to enhance something that you have allowed yourself to imagine. Something that has strongly affected you in a positive OR a negative way, something that’s remained lodged in your memory for perhaps years or decades before you return to explore it in your writing.

Such a place for me, recently, was Spanish Gardens.

Spanish Gardens was a real place, the worst-kept secret in the world, its existence and location passed on from generation to generation of University of Cape Town students and staff; it was not a place you could have STUMBLED into, it was far too well tucked away for that, and there were no obvious signs which pointed to its location. You had to know it was there, you had to know where you were going, before it lay open to you – but once you got there, it was your own world, to make what you wished out of it. People who were last there thirty years ago will perk up at the mention of the name, and they will describe the place to you if you ask them, in words that sound like they had all got together previously to keep their stories straight. It’s’ eerie how much detail – how much of the SAME detail – all these people remember quite independently of one another; I was not the first one to call it magic, nor the first one to give it other names, such as “a dimension portal”. It’s long gone now, vanished in the name of “progress”, but it still lives, in all those memories… and now, in a story which I have set there, a story about how worlds end.

Go on, order an Irish Coffee (they never made a better one than they did in this place) and join me at “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”. Come celebrate the end of the world with me, and maybe the beginning of a whole new one. Who knows. It’s Spanish Gardens – the place of truth, the place of choice, and whatever you do here… will probably answer some of your own eternal questions.

“Midnight at Spanish Gardens”

Ebook release: 1 August 2011

AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER, direct from the publisher

Available for the Kindle

and for most other formats from Smashwords

 on August 1.

Details of trade PB edition to be announced later this year.


What tricks do you have for writing what you don't know yet? Share, please!


Tags: alma alexander, fiction, literature, write what you know, writing

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