“Write what you know” — Mark Twain
As I’ve stated other places, I’m a programmer, a musician, a married man, and a father of two. I was in the Air Force for 6 years. I like computer games, board games, card games, and roleplaying games. I’m well-rounded.
So what do I write about?
- A repoman that discovers he’s psychic
- A group of amnesiac warriors in a fantasy world that’s been pacified
- A couple of baggage handlers in the future that discover a body
- A person getting lost and discovering who they are in virtual reality
- A boy going through his right of manhood to discover that he may be the bane to his nomadic people
I’m not writing about programmers, fathers, or veterans. One of the stories I listed involves gaming, but it’s actually the weakest story I’ve written, and may wind up being one of those stories that never goes anywhere.
So why am I not taking Mark Twain’s advice, and writing what I know?
There are a few reasons.
I’m already spending enough time with the things I know.
I like being a programmer. I like the creativity and the problem solving. I like that I’m able to make money as a programmer. I work very hard at it, and I strive to become better at it. When I can, I even try to teach high school kids how to be programmers.
I’m not so in love with programming that I want to write about it. I spend enough of my day in that world that I don’t need to bring it into all aspects of my life.
I’m in a different mindset when I’m writing from the other activities.
When I sit with a band, I’m thinking about the music in front of me, the instrument in my hand, and the people around me. While we’re playing, I’m constantly listening and adjusting how I’m playing to produce the best music I can.
When I sit down to program, I’m thinking about the problems I’m trying to solve. I pour over the code that’s already been written. I scribble on whiteboards and I create flowcharts.
When I sit down to write, I shut out the rest of the world, and I listen to the voice I’ve created in my head that reads from my imagination. I adjust the words as I write them. I focus my energy and thoughts on telling a story, navigating the narrative to places that I’ve thought about in advance. Or sometimes, I discover places that I hadn’t expected.
They’re all different mindsets. When I sit down to be a writer, I functionally stop being a programmer or musician. Thinking about programming pulls me out of the right head-space for writing.
Other fiction writers get the things I know wrong.
The first two reasons I listed are admittedly a little weak. This one is getting much closer to the heart of it.
When “Broken Arrow” came out, I was stationed at Holloman AFB. I saw the movie in the theater surrounded by other Air Force personnel that were familiar with the F-117 fighter. So when the camera went to the inside of the fighter and the pilot said, “Switching to stealth mode,” the audience around me groaned.
For those of you that don’t know, the F-117 is “stealthy” because of its shape and its paint. When they were first testing the design, they had a big foam mock-up shaped like the fighter, covered in the special paint. The mock-up was shot with a radar, and for a moment, the engineers thought that the design had failed, because there was a solid blip on their screen. A moment later, the bird that had been perched on the mock-up flew off, and the display on the radar cleared.
There is no stealth mode. Yes, when the landing gear is down, the plane is more visible on radar. But that’s not what the movie was portraying.
I know lots of little details like that. So when fiction gets those details wrong, it annoys me.
I don’t want to get wrapped up in those details. I don’t want to risk lowering the quality of my story by getting too involved in details that are only going to appeal to a fraction of my audience.
I don’t entertain myself with a lot of fiction involving the things I know.
We’re getting very, very close to the heart of the matter, now.
Because the little details break my immersion and annoy me when they’re wrong, I’m hesitant to get into fiction that pertains to my unique skill set. I’ve been burned too many times. I already mentioned “Broken Arrow.” There was also “Outbreak” and “The Net” off the top of my head. These are movies that got things so wrong that I remember them because of the mistakes. Some people remember “Swordfish” because of Halle’s berries. I remember it because it was impossible in bad ways.
When I see that a movie coming out with a plot that hinges on a field I know, I wait until other people have gone to see it first.
I don’t invest a lot of time in fiction that relates to fields I know about. Therefore, I don’t have a lot of experience with that kind of fiction. What business do I have writing fiction that I’m unfamiliar with? That’d be like submitting stories to a magazine I’ve never read.
Let’s get right to it. The real reason I don’t “write what I know” is:
I write what interests me.
I’d been reading The Dresden Files for weeks before NaNoWriMo last year, and that influenced me. Before that, I’d been reading The Game of Thrones books, so I started a dark fantasy story. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Brandon Sanderson, so I imagine The Way of Kings is going to have an influence on my up-and-coming NaNoWriMo project.
It doesn’t make sense to write about something that you’re not interested in. For some people, writing is an excuse to learn. So why not write about something you know nothing about? The process of writing on a subject teaches the writer about the subject.
When you start a writing project, you’re committing to an investment of time and energy. The subject needs to interest you, otherwise you will not be able to keep the commitment.
I’m sure I could write a decent story about a programmer. I’m not afraid that I would do a poor job. I’m just more interested in writing about a very spiritual young man that’s good with a staff, and his struggles with abandonment issues. (I hope I finish the book, so that the sentence I just wrote will be hilarious.)
My advice to anyone that’s just struggling with writing: Write what you care about, whether you know something about it or not.