Fantasy author Seth Skorkowsky knows a lot of stuff. How could you not pick up tidbits of information while spending countless hours at Renaissance faires, drinking flagons of ale in taverns, and setting off on quests full of adventure, danger, and discovery (mostly of the RPG sort, but still)? Here, he tells writers his thoughts about the old adage, "Write what you know."
One of the most abused and misunderstood pieces of great writing advice out there is the adage, "Write What You Know." It's a good statement. Short enough to go on a T-shirt and drives the point home quickly. However, the openness of the statement has led to many people to either not understanding it, or strictly adhering o the Letter of the rule, rather than the Spirit.
Many authors believe that they're not qualified to write at all about certain subjects or particular characters, essentially clipping their own wings before they ever had a chance to fly. Authors believe that their stories should only be limited to the scope of their actual experiences. That's boring.
I've heard (or read) authors in various online groups shout that piece of advice as a way to claim that people should never write about characters who are not just like the author, meaning sex, race, sexual orientation, disabilities, or any other demographic. Can you imagine how boring and non-diverse such stories would actually be?
Personally, I've never been in a life and death shootout. I've never been a woman, and I've never felt the crushing iron grip of drug withdrawal. Yet, I've written about all of these things.
I learned about them.
You're not an island completely cut off from the outside world. I can say this with confidence because you're reading my words on the Internet. Vast communication and knowledge is at your fingertips. So the answers to what you don't know is simply a few clicks away.
Research has never been easier. Talk to the people you know who have had the experiences you wish to depict. Not knowing anyone with those experiences is easy to correct in the age of Social Media. Read about them. Watch YouTube videos. Learn where you can physically go to so that you can try some hands-on experience or the closest approximation possible (I'm looking at you here, SciFi authors). If you don't know about something, learn about it.
Movies, television, and even novels, lie. They do. Just because you've seen something many times on the screen doesn't mean it's remotely true. Research outside of fiction. (Fun Fact: Silencers aren't silent.)
Once you've learned about your subject, apply your own experience to it.
I've never been in a fight for my life, but I've spoken at length with those that have. I also took some karate (Don't be impressed. I was terrible and I didn't last very long). But I remember my very first sparring match. I remember the fear, the adrenaline, the tunnel vision, and every aspect when my Fight or Flight Response kicked in and I chose "Fight." So that became my association I could apply these unfamiliar situations to in order to help understand and describe them.
I've never been an addict struggling to function in everyday life as the need for a fix gnaws at the back of my mind. But I've talked to a few. And I can apply my own dances with addiction to the stories they told me. I've never felt physical pain or single-minded obsession for a hit they way they have, but I've understood the need when it comes to sugar, caffeine, and even nicotine. And applying the closest experience I've had when looking at the information I've learned helped me understand it and describe it.
For this (Inter)National Novel Writing Month, many authors will feel intimidated because their own experiences aren't the same as the ones they wish to write about. That's normal. But don't let it stop you.
You have experiences. You've loved, lost, felt betrayal, stress, fear, and joy. You've done many things that I haven't and never will. They may seem boring to you, and while they might not the exact same as the subject of your book, I want you to use them. Research what you don't know and apply that new knowledge to your own experiences.
"Write what you know," looks good as a Tweet, but it's too short to express the full meaning behind it.
You don't need to be an expert, but you need to know how to fake it. Learn about your subject. Apply what you know to it. Don't be intimidated.
Raised in the swamps and pine forests of East Texas, Seth Skorkowsky gravitated to the darker sides of fantasy, preferring horror and pulp heroes over knights in shining armor. His debut novel, Dämoren, was published in 2014 as book #1 in the Valducan series. The fourth novel, Redemptor, is scheduled for 2018. Seth has also released two sword-and-sorcery rogue collections with his Tales of the Black Raven series. When not writing, Seth enjoys cheesy movies, tabletop role-playing games, and traveling the world with his wife.