I first heard this phrase when I interacted with a peer-review group named the Critters. The group is a member of the Critique.org family of on-line workshops/critique groups, and is for serious writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. You get your work critiqued in exchange for critiquing the work of others, both of which are invaluable ways to improve your writing. It’s run by Andrew Burt, former vice-president of SFWA and his army of software minions. Critters is — of course, not everyone’s a crook online — free (except for the work of doing critiques!) and funded by donations.
I submitted a short sci-fi excerpt to the group and their feedback had been the first to make me think critically about my writing. Feedback came back with the praise for writing what I know. All’s good, being a physicist and a computer scientist I do have a solid background to write hard science fiction, however, if we wrote only what we know, we would write about ourselves. That can get soon boring. As writers, instead, we want to explore new ideas, places, cultures, emotions, and situations.
Most writers have limited resources. I’m sure few of us could afford to jump on a plane to check out what a particle accelerator is like to learn about the physics of blaster guns. But there are, today, ways to do research and give a feeling of truth to our fiction.
Today, more than ever, research is easier, especially with the web supplementing the older methods: books, newspapers and articles. Another advantage of the web is that there is often a contact that will get back with more information.
The interview is something that many writers forget. Do you want to do a short story about adoption but grew up with your natural parents? Interview adoptees. Have a character who is a policeman? Go to your local police station (we won’t discuss here the suspicious looks that you might get when you’ll enter a police station to ask about gun laws and interrogation methods). Most people are more than happy to discuss themselves, their work, or their special interest area.
In my trilogy, I needed research on drugs derived by cerebral tissue; there were areas of knowledge I’ve never been and probably will never go in depth. Luckily I had contacts, a neurosurgeon and oncologist, and a neuroscientist; both had to know a few things. In the matter of a few email exchanges, I had over 15 scientific papers on the matter, and information of fatal brain cancer that can be induced on a subject. Their information led to several plot twists. Best of all, they looked over my manuscript to correct any inaccuracies; there weren’t any. Grow your source of information, tap into your acquaintances.
“At this stage, the Glioblastoma Multiforme of enhanced Grade VI will have started to spread causing cranial nerve disorder, and extensive areas of necrosis and hypoxia.”
The two scientists freewheeled with details and left us way behind. I watched them in awe for a few seconds.
“The tumor growth,” the Chief Scientist continued, “will cause a breakdown of the blood–brain barrier, thus opening the way to the nanoparticle-mediated delivery of neoplastic enhancing molecules to further spread the tumor.”
Our settings don’t have to be as tragic as oncology or exotic as brain surgeon expertise, we can easily get caught up in everyday details that show we don’t know what we are talking about. If your only information is hearsay, though, expect readers to question your knowledge and expertise. My daughter happened to read a YA novel and the million dollar selling author mentioned a horse’s soft tongue. Well, shall I inform the fellow writer that horse tongues are anything but soft?
We can test activities in our writing. I have a character move in a sewer stream, and fight against the mud and the current — not to mention the smell. One reader told me that the scene was graphical enough that she could smell it. Well, as a matter of fact, in the countryside not too far from home, there’s a large draining pipe from the crops and farms around. Not particularly fancy a place to wander about and explore, but yours truly wrapped himself in a plastic suit — think of Hannibal Lecter (or Dexter Morgan) ready to perform his duty — strapped some duct tape to prevent as much as possible any ‘infiltration’ and hop he went into the pipe. Crazy? Of course, but you knew writers are all but sane chaps, right?
The information is out there. The important thing is to look for it to make sure your fiction is “true”. That’s another way about writing what you know. Learn about it, then you can move and explore into what you didn’t know before.