Friday, May 15, 2009


Write what you know. We hear it a lot. Is it good advice or not? It sure gets vilified sometimes. It's true that we can't always write what we know. There are certain things we just can't know. Sometimes we have to write what we imagine. It's impossible to "know" some things, and in a multitude of situations that's totally fine. But... (You knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you?)

It has struck me lately that we have to know what we are writing about. We must write with authenticity. I'm not saying that we have to write what we've experienced or even write about where we've lived or that kind of thing. I'm saying that we have to be able to render whatever we put on paper in such a way that it is completely authentic. 

I've been reading a friend's MS this week and have been struck by the authenticity of it. It's set in the south and even though she's not from the south and has not lived in the south, it sounds completely authentic. (I'm from the south and can spot fake southern in a heartbeat.) She has a southern connection and she's done her research--reading journals, etc. That kind of thing makes a huge difference.

There is nothing that will pull me out of a story faster than reading something that I know is wrong. It's sloppy writing, and the author loses a bit of credibility with each mistake. I can overlook small things if there aren't too many, but if there's a flagrant mistake that even I recognize, I have been known to quit reading altogether and not buy things by that author again. It tells me that I can't trust anything they say.

Here's a quick example of something small. I was reading a book that had a supposed linguistic genius speaking in French, and I recognized that the French was not quite right. It was the sort of thing that made me not believe that the genius was as good as everyone made her out to be. (And that was not the author's intent at all.) I'll grant you that everyone out there doesn't have a Master's degree in French, but there are those who do, not to mention native speakers. This was a small distraction, but it did detract from the book. I didn't stop reading it because of this, and I actually enjoyed the book for the most part in spite of the flaws. I'm just saying we have to be careful

When we don't have the expertise to know something for sure, we have to do our research. We have to call on experts. In my example above, the solution would have been simple: Have a native French speaker check over the French in the book. If you don't know one personally, check in with a French department at any university. Most people are really happy to help. They love sharing what they know. Plus, they could even get a "thank you" in your book.

I have some British people in my WIP. Now, I'm not British, and I've never lived in the UK, but I have done a fair amount of research, and I have a very kind British friend who is going to critique for me when I've finished rewriting to help me make sure that the Brits ring true--even to a Brit. 

What do you think? What kinds of things do you do to help make your work authentic?


Justus M. Bowman said...

When I need information, I read books, check websites and ask experienced people for help.

lotusgirl said...

Yay for Justus doing his homework.

Tess said...

*blushing* Aww, thanks, friend (er...was that a correct assumption?)

This post gave me a cartoon idea (I posted a homemade cartoon today and am on a roll with them). I think I'll have an author submitting a manuscript to an agent and the caption will go something like:

Agent: this ms in only 7 pages long.
Author: yes, I took your advice to write what I know

Ok - that was WAY funnier in my head.

Natalie said...

I think authentic is a good way to think about it. You have to research if you're writing a book about the "real world." Of course sf/f has a little more leeway, but it still has to be believable within that world.

I must admit I'm a little more forgiving if things are off though. I'd never put a book down over a little slip up.

Now, if there were blatant, racist stereotypes...maybe I'd email the writer and point that out, but I know most people try hard and still make mistakes.

Davin Malasarn said...

I'll admit that doing my research on stuff like this bores me quite a bit. But, I still do it. I know it's essential. Even though I'm much more interested in characters and emotions, I feel I have to get the facts of the setting and time right in order to gain a reader's trust, as you say. My book has a Thai cremation ceremony in it. I had the chance to attend one several years ago, but because I was a child then, I've forgotten much of it. The internet hasn't been a help, so I finally asked my family to dig out the old photo album. I've been trying to reconstruct the scene using that.

Cindy said...

That's an excellent way to explain "write what you know". I admit, it irritates me as well when I read books that lack authenticity. I shows the reader was using a certain career or characteristic, etc. for the sake of what they wanted in the story but didn't think as much about what it would accomplish in the reader.

I don't like research all that much but you've reinforced the necessity for it. Thanks!

scott g.f. bailey said...

Maybe "write what you know" should be changed to "know what you write!"

I do a lot of research, but I love research. It's fascinating, and I always get great ideas that add much to what I'm writing. Writing my last book entailed reading thousands of pages of background material. I read way more than I wrote. Writing my next book will be the same way, and I have all sorts of odd things I must find out. I could, yes, make it all up, but then it wouldn't ring true. It wouldn't be authentic and that's cheating the reader.

One of my beliefs is that we should write what we care about; if we don't care enough about it to make it authentic, to Get It Right, then maybe we're not the right author for our subject matter.

lotusgirl said...

Tess, Yes! It is you. You're welcome. It's a very enjoyable read, girl!

Natalie, I agree that SFF has to be authentic to the world that it is in. I don't want you to think that I stop reading all books where I see errors. I don't. They have to be pretty significant for me to not be able to continue.

Davin, Yeah, research can be boring, but it is, as you say, essential. That ceremony sounds interesting. I would learn a lot from that in a book. I love to learn while I'm reading, and I want to learn the truth. That's part of why I will put down a book that I know is riddled with errors.

lotusgirl said...

Cindy, I'm kind of a research junkie. I can get so caught up in the research that I have to remind myself what I'm doing the research for.

Scott, That's exactly it! You said it so much better than I did. You captured just what I was trying to get at. I love the research part too and can spend entire days doing just that. (Generally, I don't get left alone long enough for that kind of indulgence, but if I did...Ah, the research I could do!)

T. Anne said...

I have so much fun researching. I don't write historical or anything that heavily requires it but to the extent I need it, I really enjoy it!

lotusgirl said...

T. Anne, I don't write historical either, but I have considered it, because I like researching so much. Of course, if I wrote historical I'd probably never stop researching and actually write.

Krista Phillips said...

I really like the saying, "Write what you know."

I write much better when I start with a seed of something I've seen, heard, dreamt about, or read about. I write out of my fears, out of my frustrations, out of a lot of things. Granted, most of the time that's just the seed, and then my imagination takes over and the seed turns out to be something much different than the original reality.

And yes, we SO need to be authentic/real when we write. Another place is in dialogue. Am I the only one who HATES when I read dialogue that sounds staged? I just want to say... He would NEVER say that!

KLo said...

I think it's impossible NOT to write what you know. It sort of seeps its way in ... at least, that's been my experience : )

Liana Brooks said...

For me authenticity has a lot more to do with emotional punch than possible science. I'll forgive everything from warp drive to unicorns if the characters act correctly for the scene, and if I feel emotionally involved.

Litgirl01 said...

I agree... know what you write! With the right resources, you can do anything!

Lady Glamis said...

I'm enjoying Tess's book, too. The authenticity is something that struck me as well. She's brilliant! I'm super jealous.

I LOVE the way you put this - about being authentic. That's exactly what writing what you know means. This is the best explanation I've read about it, so thank you! It makes the most sense to me.

The problem I have with Monarch is I can't exactly go find a CIA officer to read it... But I have read books written by CIA officers, and I've done lots of research online. But Monarch is missing A LOT of authenticity to make it ring true. This is yet another layer to put in. I think it'll take several layers, actually!

Thank you for some great thoughts, Lois!

Silicon Valley Diva said...

Recently I read that Stephen King will get hate mail whenever he get's some major fact incorrect.

For me, so long as the writing isn't "sloppy" as you point out, I can overlook some mistakes.

My father was a homicide cop so even he can suspend disbelief in novels and movies. He will offer criticism, but he will still keep reading those murder-mysteries :-)

The French thing. Yeah, when I was taking French classes my husband, being a native French speaker, would point out inaccuracies in my textbook and from my professor LOL.

Danyelle said...

I agree, research is a must.

*tries not to think of the many mistakes she hasn't seen in her own ms yet*

I can be forgiving, depending on the story. If the characters and plot wrap me up and pin a bow on my head, I keep reading. If not, I stop.

lotusgirl said...

Krista, I don't like staged dialogue either. I like the concept of starting with the seed and letting it grow.

KLo, True. I'm just trying to illustrate that we need to know about what we write or research it to make it authentic.

Liana, In this I'm not talking about fantasy elements. Those can be anything the author choses. I like the emotional authenticity that you're talking about, too.

Litgirl, Exactly. There are so many great resources out there.

Glam, Isn't she brilliant? I'm glad you like my thoughts on this. Yes, one more layer. The CIA angle would be a hard one to take care of, but there are fewer people that know the inside scoop of that as well. I would think anyway. We just have to do our best to make it as authentic as we can.

Diva, I can forgive small mistakes as long as there aren't tons of them. That's so true about language textbooks. Even professors make mistakes. That's why I say it's important to find native speakers if you can.

Danyelle, It is true that if the story is engaging I'm more forgiving of mistakes. We all make mistakes, I just think it's important to eliminate as many as we can.

Danyelle said...

I agree. Anything that distracts from the story needs to be eliminated as much as possible. :D

Alexa said...

I think you're right and it's hard. I'm finding setting particularly difficult to get right. Where as when I wrote a piece set on the tube for my writing class it was easy to get all the details because I'd traveled that way so much!

I'm lucky that I know lots of lovely Americans who are going to read the book for me and tell me where I'm falling down on authenticity :)

peace, love, and rock&roll said...

I totally agree with you about authenticity. It's so important, and there's nothing I hate more than reading along, enjoying what I'm reading, and then stumbling upon something that I know isn't right. It's the worst; it usually ruins the rest of the read. Now, I don't write, but I'm a huge fact-checker, and as a result, know lots of random information. I don't like to tell people things unless I know what I'm talking about. I hate the spreading of false information. :)

lotusgirl said...

Danyelle, yep, It can be hard though.

Alexa, I can't wait to read yours. American I know.

A, I had a feeling you'd agree. Heehee!

Grace said...

What do you think of remakes of fairy tales?! I love remakes (ignoring the ones that are not so good). There are a lot of quite good novels developed from fts: Ever After is the best Cinderella story. .

Enchantment by O S Card is Sleeping Beauty's. This full length novel combines dozens of fairy tales and begs to be discussed. Judaism, Ancient languages, Mysticism, feminism, cultural competition--truly a plot and story with complexity. The characterizations are deep from their names to their conversations and actions.

Research, thought and enjoyment. I'm assuming that this is a book that you have read. How did you like it?

日月神教-向左使 said...
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