Tag Archives: Write What You Know

Life in the Cosmic Fishbowl

I think it’s because I come from a small town. Growing up, there were about 1,500 people in Niverville, Manitoba. As I’ve grown into adulthood, my hometown seems to have grown with me, to the point where the population now is just shy of 5,000. By most everyone’s definition, however, even after this lightning quick population boom, we are tiny. A mote of dust in the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s eye.

The truth is, I like it that way.

When I attended college, I packed my bags and moved to the nearest city: Winnipeg. It is now, as it was then, about 750,000 persons strong. A city of moderate size, and hugely spread out. You’d be hard-pressed to find another city anywhere, much less a regional capital, with such low density. After college, I lived for a couple of years in Huntsville, Alabama, home to a mere 450,000. Winnipeg was larger than I liked, and Huntsville, while just about right in terms of population, was most enjoyable for me when I relocated to its most distant suburb.

So it should come as no great surprise that I eventually returned to little ol’ Niverville. Recently, in fact, I doubled down and purchased property here. For the time being, barring some unforeseen life changes, this will be home.

It’s an interesting thing, but the fact that the town doubled in size during my time away has profoundly changed my experience of it. When I was a kid, I knew everyone. If you showed me a face, I could tell you who they were, or at least who they were related to or where they worked or where they went to church. Now? More than half of my friends from high school have moved away, and the people who’ve taken their places are largely unfamiliar. Somehow a lot of strangers have decided that this town is perfect for them.

I no longer know all their names and faces, and more often than not they aren’t related to anyone I know. Because I work from home, I often don’t know where people work, and I certainly don’t know where they go to church (probably because I myself don’t go to church anymore).

In short, 5,000 may seem small to you—but the difference between 1,500 and 5,000 is pretty big.

Why am I going on and on about the populations of the communities I’ve called home? Because I think it has a strong bearing on the kinds of communities represented in my fiction.

My books aren’t very urban. In The Watchers Chronicle, the characters visit a number of cities, but it’s a travelogue, so most of the time the characters are in smaller, quieter locales or travelling through countryside and otherwise empty spaces.

My more recent stories take me to (1) a tiny and insulated Martian colony, (2) a small ship of cryogenically frozen interstellar travelers, (3) a generational space vessel, and (4) a future Earth overrun by wilderness and devoid of human life.

These are the settings that resonate to me, the ones I gravitate to. They’re very intimate, with a relatively small number of characters who are often incapable of getting very far away from each other in a pinch.

The whole “write what you know” mantra totally applies. It’s funny, because logic dictates that you’d need to squint to see the similarities between Niverville, Manitoba and a little dome of civilization on the Martian plain. But really, they are much more alike than you’d think—including in temperature, sometimes, but I won’t go there.

Everyone knows everyone else, for better or worse (often for worse). People’s lives are deeply tied to their pasts, to their reputations. A small number of larger-than-life personalities can wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence. The family you were born to, or marry into, carries big significance. It can be hard to outrun your problems, and really hard to hide from your mistakes. Life lived on a small stage, ultimately, is subject to greater exposure. (You know what they say about life in a fishbowl, right?)

This is what I know—and frankly, it can lend itself to some stellar drama.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing both hard and soft science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

Be Messy and Explore New Ideas: A Guest Post by Hamilton Perez

A guest post by Hamilton Perez.


There’s one piece of writer’s advice that is, I think, as misguided as it is persistent. The reason it does so well, of course, is because it’s not actually bad advice, it’s just often misapplied. That advice is the old adage: Write what you know.

In life, this translates to something like, “Find what you’re good at and do that.” It’s great advice for when you’re first starting out, either as a writer or in a new career; it helps you discover parts of who you are, what skills you have, unlocks your potential or at the very least points you in that direction.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure that the more seasoned writers who recommended “write what you know” were politely telling me that some part of my writing didn’t ring true. Maybe I described a place I’d never been to, or what it’s like to jump out of a plane, or travel through Europe–whatever it was, I did it wrong. I needed to go back to the beginning and start with something simpler and closer to my own experience.

I took their advice and focused on stories with more familiar settings and characters, and I immediately hit a brick wall. Should I take actual experiences and fictionalize them? Should I write about themes of friendship, love, and loss? What does that look like on page 1? The experiences I’ve had that seemed most suitable for adaptation resisted being written the most.

Trying to tell a story based on an actual experience, even with deviations and embellishments to make them properly fictional, resulted in something constraining and strangely hollow. What I learned from years focused on writing “literary fiction” (a pretentious way to say there are no dragons), was it’s not the memories of heartache or longing that most inspire me, it’s the dreams and fears of what I haven’t yet experienced. Those are the thoughts that get my heart pounding and give a pulse to the page.

For me, “Write what you know” hindered growth by encouraging me to lean on what I already knew or was already good at, instead of pushing me into unknown waters where I could really find what I’m capable of. Ultimately, what I know was just getting in the way. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Through classes, workshops, and slush reading for magazines, I’ve come across a lot of boring characters and stories surrounded by beautiful writing. And I think this “write what you know” advice is partly to blame. We have a whole generation of budding writers trying to “write what they know” by pulling from homogeneous experiences, and as a result we have literary journals full of mediocre literature. That isn’t to say there aren’t gems out there, or that literary journals aren’t a worthy pursuit, but good writing should take us to unexpected places, not simply look under the fabric of suburban life or failing relationships ad nauseam.

Eventually, I gave up on that and switched to speculative fiction. I have nothing in common (as far as I know) with pillow golems, changelings, or warrior mountain tribes of Martian sand people. But in turning to them, my writing has flourished, and has even allowed me to get back into non-genre fiction by opening up my imagination, rather than shutting it in.

Maybe writing about your past experiences does that for you, in which case, have at it. The ultimate point here is not to dump on that classic advice–it’s don’t pigeon hole your inspiration. Develop whatever interesting idea comes to you and turn it as far off the beaten trail as you can. Sure, 90% of what we create is probably garbage. Glorious garbage! But the rest might just be weird and scary enough to work. At the very least, you’ll grow.

So be messy. Explore new ideas. Go directions that feel alien to you. Poke your fingers into strange holes, ideologically speaking. In the end, you’ll find that what you know seeps through anyway, except it will do so naturally and with more honesty than if you just recounted the string of events that led to a broken heart.

They say life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I believe that’s where good writing begins as well. Because success or failure in the unknown are far more rewarding and exciting than building empires of sand along the familiar shores of home.


Hamilton Perez bio:

Hamilton Perez started writing at age twelve because there weren’t any crossovers between Terminator, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park, and he really thought there ought to be. Alas, after several cease and desist letters from everyone who read those stories, Hamilton moved on to other subjects. He is a slush reader for Fantasy Scroll Magazine and his work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction.

Write What You Know or No?

All right, Mark Twain, sounds simple enough.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard this sage advice: write what you know.

Our experiences help shape who we are and what we believe about the world, so they can be valuable veins to mine when it comes to writing. No one person in the world has had the same combinations of experiences as you. However, many have had similar combinations of experiences and have lived in the same time as you. That connection of shared, similar experiences can help engage readers and draw them in to your book. This is why the saying, “Write what you know, ” is so popular in writing circles.

But this advice isn’t the end-all be-all. Plenty of arguments can be made against it.

Oh, I see what you did there.

What if a physical handicap has limited the writer in combat experience, but the writer wants to write a medieval sword fight?

What if you’re a boring person? Do you just write about owning seven cats at one time because that’s what you’re familiar with? What not showering for three days does to the human body? Not clipping your toenails for three months?

While those topics can be very interesting and you should totally write about those, perhaps there is room for adding more information to your story even if you haven’t yourself experienced it.

This month, the Fictorians will discuss personal experience verses imagination: which

Okay, I don't even know anymore.
Okay, I don’t even know anymore.

is more important and where the two intersect. We’ll also consider how far you can/should/maybe shouldn’t go to experience what your characters experience. We’ll include some interesting experiences we’ve had, which may or may not include learning how to deal with post-combat stress, retracing Nikola Tesla’s footsteps, butchering our own meat, and breaking bones.

Later this month, we’ll get an exclusive interview with Fictorian Frank Morin, author of the series The Petralist.

Now we’re curious. In the comments below, please tell us how far you’ve gone to gain experience for writing!