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Write What You Know

Posted by on September 29, 2016

I’ve recently started writing a new historical novel, which means wallowing in research of Anglo-Saxon Britain circa the 7th century CE, and my experience so far has brought to the surface some realizations that I’m sharing with both my rhetoric and creative-writing students.

I’ll start with a little name-dropping. I had the fortune some years ago to attend a dinner put on by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences with Kevin Smith as guest of honor. Kevin was talking to newly-minted Nicholl Fellows about his journey as a writer and filmmaker, and specifically the oft-repeated cliché of “write what you know.” Most novice writers take this to mean that you should only write about that which you have experienced; I certainly thought so when I wrote my first successful screenplay, The Days Between, a story taking place in the small Washington town of Onalaska where I grew up. But Kevin made a clear distinction: it is write what you know, not necessarily what you’ve experienced. Did George Lucas, he asked, have experience as an X-wing pilot and acolyte of a mystical religion in a galaxy far away? No, but he knew a lot about Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Flash Gordon, and Lord of the Rings.

There is this myth about writing: that stories or ideas just come to the writer, as if by magic, flowing from the head and through the fingers onto the page. The writer in this myth is a genius, getting it right in the first pass, from beginning to end. Thus, if one struggles to get the words out, to organize ideas, to fully develop the idea into a coherent whole, then obviously one must not be a “writer.” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say that they had this great idea for a short story or a screenplay or novel, and that they started writing but just couldn’t get further than a few pages. I’ve seen the same issue with students in rhetoric and composition classes, where they can only manage a middling introduction and an argument or analysis that eventually fizzles out after only two pages. “I’m just not a writer,” they shrug.

Bullshit. It’s that you haven’t taken the time to know what the hell it is you are writing.

Some of this I blame on the backwards process of thesis-based writing we learn in school. For the life of me I can’t understand why any writing teacher would ask a student to come up with a thesis statement first, and then find an arbitrary number of sources (five sources, two of which must be from scholarly articles and only one of which can be from the “Internet”) to support that thesis. Essentially, such an assignment is asking the student to state a usually uninformed opinion and then work in reverse to somehow justify that opinion. No wonder our society struggles to think beyond soundbites and memes.

Research is our way of knowing as much as we can about a subject, and in doing so, understand where the controversies, the tensions, and the unanswered questions lie. First we must ask questions about our own understanding of the subject, allowing those questions to drive the research. If we are doing this right, then we will become knowledgeable about the subject, and the essay or story we wish to write will spring naturally from that knowledge. So when students complain that they don’t know where to do with a piece of writing, that they are “blocked” or lost steam, I ask them how much time they’ve spent in research.

My current project started from personal experience as I watched my two young daughters play together, marveling at the distinct personalities at work. Since historical fiction in ancient time periods is my thing, naturally a story began to form in a dripping forest of moss-dappled ruins, and the two sisters were arguing in hoarse whispers over whether or not to steal bread from the window ledge of the thatched croft before them. That powerful energy that comes with a new idea propelled my fingers over the keyboard as I brainstormed all the ideas flashing in my head, and at this point I could have just started writing, as many do.

Now let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with that sort of process. I’ve had success just letting the story take me on a journey, and know plenty of successful writers for whom this style of writing works. But I also know enough about myself as a writer to realize that I would ultimately hit a frustrating wall, where I want to keep writing but I don’t know enough about the world in which I’m writing—a bit of a problem for historical fiction.

And so I took a step back. I allowed myself to write down every idea that came to mind, every scene or bit of dialogue or sudden inspiration, but I reframed from writing the novel. Instead, I sat down and dug into the research, and I started with questions.

Where does this story take place?

When?

Why?

I compared different time periods, evaluated the potential in each, even did a bit of pre-market researchold-north-550-650 to see what had been written in the various time periods and locales. In doing so, I began to uncover the history of Britain post-Roman withdrawal (4th century CE) through the invasion by the Anglo-Saxons (8th century or so). I discovered Bede. I discovered maps of the changing territories. I discovered epic Welsh poems of heroes and battles. Through this research I located a brilliant basis for my story, with a wealth of opportunities embedded in the history itself.

I wanted to start writing the novel so badly, but still I held back, continuing to ask questions about the gaps in my knowledge of the time period. What was the role of women in early medieval Anglo-Saxon culture? In Welsh culture? What laws protected them? When did Christianity come to Britain? How? Why? The more I uncovered, the more I realized I didn’t know. And the more I learned, the deeper my story became. Unanticipated twists and turns, stomach clenching tragedies, and surprisingly modern issues rose out of the research, none of which would have occurred to me if I’d just pounded out a draft.

Now I’m bursting at the seams to write this novel, because it has become filled with all the nuances of the time period, all the shades of life as we experience it now, stimulated and propagated by everything I have learned. I am sure that I will hit walls that will require further research, but the story I’ve developed is stronger because I am truly writing what I know.

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