Write what you know, they say. For us lazy ones, this is an excuse to avoid research. Realistically, though, it means showing an accurate perspective on life.

Jane Austen, for example, never wrote a secene with just men. She knew her limitations; she knew what she knew, and more importantly, she knew what she did not know. Dickens rarely writes about upper classes — at least, he focuses on the city of London and its poor. Tolkien wrote what he knew: history, mythology, England. He knew Welsh myths and Norse legends. He studied the stuff. So although his stories are set in fantastical lands full of people who don’t exist and events that never happened, his writing breathes sincerity.

This is a lesson I have to learn. What do I know of … well, anything? I hardly know myself, let alone anyone else. But I think there are two ways to “know” something: either by experience, so, firsthand knowledge; or by observation, or secondhand knowledge. Dickens knew by experience: he had wandered the streets of London, he had lived in the greying fog before he ever put a word to paper. Tolkien, I believe, knew mostly through observation: he studied, he read, he observed. I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong!) he ever set foot outside his beloved country, and yet he was able to write entire worlds.

Of course, it helps to be a genius, I suppose. Maybe that’s what I need to work on. Hmmm …


4 thoughts on “Knowledge

  1. jubilare says:

    Tolkien was born in South Africa, I believe, and fought in France during World War I. It’s pretty clear I think, from his writing, that England was his home, but his life was far more eventful than many people seem to realize. He and Lewis both learned a lot by observation, but also a lot by experience.
    These thoughts have troubled me a lot, too. I have struggled with the question of how one writes authentic fantasy, and how someone with as little direct life experience as I have can write genuine fiction at all.

    A while back, though, I started to understand “write what you know” a little better, or at least I think so. I would love to discuss it with you, and I will a little here, but I think I will incorporate it into my reply to your last e-mail, as that will make discussion easier.

    The only thing any person REALLY knows is his or her perspective on his/her self and the world. Even our experiences, that first-hand knowledge, are derived through our senses and perspectives, which may be truthful, but which are also incomplete.
    Therefore, to write what you know is, in a way, simply a matter of being honest with yourself and with your reader. It is a kind of humility and self-exposure, and it is scary, but it is really the only way to tell the truth. Anything more or less either comes off as false or preachy.

    As for the physical aspect of “write what you know,” that is all observation, and for fantasy/sci-fi writers, applying imagination to what we see, hear, taste, smell, touch and feel. The key, there, is to pay attention, and anyone can do that, even attention-deficit individuals like me. ^_^

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