We’ve all read books and stories where the author…umm…just kinda made stuff up.
My favorite example of that kind of thing is a story I read many years ago that was ostensibly set in Samarkhand. Now, I’ve never actually been to Samarkhand, but (quite obviously) neither had the writer. And that ruined the story for me.
Hell, an even better example came from an interview I once read with a former astronaut. We all think about the space shuttle and the space station in certain ways, as clean and high-tech and aspirational-as-hell. Basically, thanks to NASA’s quite capable PR flacks, we think of those things in terms of Star Trek’s perfect-world bullshit. In this interview, however, the all-too-honest astronaut in question — when asked to describe what life was really like aboard an orbiting shuttle — answered, “After a couple of days, it smells like a bus station bathroom…”
I defy you to find anyone who has NOT lived in cramped, sealed quarters like that to come up with such an observation.
In a similar vein, I once — as part of an oral history interview — asked a WW2 USN veteran about everyday life aboard a destroyer in the Pacific. What was the first thing he thought of, I asked, as he looked at a picture of his old ship?
“The smell,” he answered, with no hesitation. “We couldn’t produce enough fresh water for showers, and that was in the days before deodorant…”
Oh hell yeah. As much as we writers like to fake-it-‘til-you-make-it, there is absolutely no substitute for real-world experience and knowledge. Hell, I still remember — and use as writing inspiration — my ex-Marine brother’s description of the “3-hole rule”* for taking a shit in the field in the Middle East.
*You really don’t want to know the details…
“Wait a second,” I hear you cry, “ don’t you write sci-fi and fantasy? Who the hell are you to talk about ‘versimilitude’ and the whole ‘write what you know’ thing?!”
Well, shit…here just a few things I think about when I write:
Can you write about carrying & firing a gun if you’ve never so much as handled one?
How ‘bout a sword?
Hacking someone’s bank account?
Living homeless and hopeless amidst a world of plenty?
Walking twenty to thirty miles a day for weeks on end?
Getting stabbed or shot?
Betting everything you have/own on the flip of coin?
The smell & feel of the untracked wilds?
When I can, I answer those questions myself. I have, indeed, carried a (legally) concealed pistol for days on end, so I know what that feels like.* I do, in fact, own a sword…if I’m not nuts enough to wear it on the street, I have at least walked around the house wearing it. Tripped over the stupid thing, too.
*Relaxing in a chair, by the way, sucks donkey balls when said weapon is digging into your damned kidney…I’ll take a shoulder holster every single day of the week, and twice on Sundays…
When I don’t know the truth — when I can’t know — I talk to those who do. I have been attacked with a knife — don’t ask! — but I’ve never so much as had a gun pointed at me, let alone have I been shot at. I do, however, have friends and relatives who have experienced that “side” of life…
I’ve never hacked an account — I’ve never actually hacked anything — but before I started writing Connor’s story, I took the time to find and talk to those who have. In much the same way, in fact, that I spent several months getting to know the homeless street-kids who haunted some of Northern Colorado’s most well-known public spaces before I started writing.
I can, of course, tell you what it feels like to walk terrain untrodden for years, or even for decades. I can tell you what a grizzly smells like, and how it feels to have a predator “interested” in you for several miles…
Write what you know, they say. And they kinda have a point…
Wait…what? You don’t know the politics of a medieval kingdom? Or the internecine struggles of a modern secret society? You don’t personally know the dynamics of high society, or the struggles and sacrifices of a professional athlete?
If you don’t know, you talk to those who do. You learn from those who do. And, when you get right down to it, you use what you do know: you take modern politics and society and culture and experiences and throw over them whatever concealing shroud your story requires…
Holy crap, do you think “King Lear” was really about an aging king and his feuding daughters?!?!
Do you really think “Lord of the Rings” was about a couple of hobbits and an evil demi-god? That “Moby Dick” was about some random dude’s obsession with an albino whale? That “La Morte d’Arthur” was about some aquatic tart giving a glorified letter opener to a horny adolescent?
Crap, not even the freaking “Tale of Genji”* was about what it purports to be about.
*The oldest extant novel in the world, by the way…
Look, we’re writers…we get to make shit up.
Hell, that’s half the fun of being a writer!
But — and this is the big, inevitable BUT — but, what you make up has to be significant. It has to mean something, both to you and to the reader.
Oh…and you damned well better have at least some kind of reality behind what you make up! You don’t have to get shot to write your story, but if you don’t at least go down to the VFW and buy a few drinks for those who do know, then it might be time to consider a new calling…