If I should "write what I know," how can I write science fiction or fantasy?
Published: September 22, 2011
Q: I often hear writers say, “write what you know.” But how can this be if you want to write fantasy or science fiction?
A: That old adage to “write what you know” isn’t necessarily an edict to write only
what you have experienced in your own life. Whole genres of literature,
including fantasy and science fiction, as well as historical fiction
and magical realism, would be wiped out if authenticity came only
through those means. Such limitations would even rule out many books
based in the contemporary world and reality as we know it.
are many different ways to “know” something. You can know it through
personal experience, yes, but also through close observation and
empathetic imagination. Anthony Doerr’s novella “Memory Wall” depicts a
world in which memories can be recovered and stored on memory tapes.
This technology doesn’t exist in our world, but memory, memory loss, and
the very personal and human connection to it do. The writer can draw on
this kind of knowledge and his own relationship to and
observations about memory in order to empathetically—and
authentically—imagine his way into the particulars of a circumstance and
setting that is well outside his realm.
Though “Memory Wall”
isn’t fully based on our reality, a strong understanding of the nature
of memory—as it does exist in our reality—buffets the foundation of that
story. In fact, writers who write beyond the realistic often value real
science and technology, using advancements, facts or possibilities in
these areas as a foundation for fiction.
Regardless of where
your story is set—on an island inhabited by fictionalized creatures, an
invented planet, or a futuristic rocket ship—you want your details to
ring true. In this respect, writing what you know means you should also
have an intimate understanding of the place, even if you’re the one
inventing most of the details. Engage in thorough and thoughtful world
building. Think of all the constants that exist in our own reality: a
dropped key will fall down because of gravity, the sky is above us,
water is a liquid that turns to ice when frozen. Then, there’s the
reality of geographic location, cultural mores and norms, and era in
time. It’s your job to know this fictionalized place as well as you know
your own reality so that your characters can interact with it in a
credible and meaningful way.
Consistency is of particular
importance. If a dragon is introduced as a creature with the ability to
read the minds of any other creature around him, the reader will be
confused if, later, a dragon is easily slain by the hero who sneaks up
on him to utilize the element of surprise. Of course, if your world
grows into a series of books along the lines of the Harry Potter empire,
you might find a continuity editor a welcome addition to your team to
help ferret out just such errant details. Until then, it’s up to you.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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