The Merits (or lack thereof) of Writing What You Know

(This was originally posted up on my other blog, , on August 17th, 2011. In an attempt to streamline the content on both, this entry has been reposted here.)

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone. I told her I was writing a play about a prison psychologist who is counseling an inmate. She asked if I had any experience with any of that. Of course I had to say no-I have never been a prison psychologist, a student of psychology, a prisoner, or a murderer.

One of the great tenets of writing has always been to write what you know. But, if we all wrote about what we knew we wouldn’t have half the books that we do. I’m sure there’s someone out there who knows what it’s like to fight the greatest dark wizard of all time or fall in love with a vampire. But that person isn’t J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. Rowling doesn’t know what it’s like to fly on a hippogriff any more than Meyer knows what it’s like to give birth to a half-vampire baby. Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game Series) doesn’t know what it’s like to be a child soldier training in space or the savior of the human race. Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper) doesn’t know what it’s like to have your parents forcing you to donate your bodily material to your sister. Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games Series) doesn’t know what it’s like to fight to stay alive in a dystopian world. Bram Stoker (Dracula) didn’t know what it would be like to be a guest of Dracula. George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm) didn’t have a time machine that allowed him to visit the world as it would be in 1984. Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple Series) was no renowned criminal investigator. Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) was a writer, not a detective. Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) didn’t know what it was like to bring something to life that terrified and filled her with shame. Richard Wright (Native Son) never murdered a white girl. Justin Cronin (The Passage) never lived through a vampire apocalypse. Phillip Pullman (His Dark Materials Series) didn’t have a daemon by his side while penned his famous trilogy. Cormac McCarthy (The Road) never wandered through a post-apocalyptic world.

So if these authors didn’t write about what they knew, how did they do it? With time, research, and where research failed, imagination. And of course, an understanding of the human condition.

To write a great novel or series of novels, you need not have traveled far and wide or seen great things. You simply need to understand what it is to be alive. That’s all characters need, wherever they be. Life.

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