Write What You Know … Some of the Time
By Emily Golus
I have a confession: I have never, to my knowledge, been a forty-inch-tall goblin criminal trapped in a pitch-black cavern.
And yet in my most recent novel, Crack the Stone, I write about this character in this situation, and infuse her story with many of my own experiences.
Writers are often told “write what you know,” and it’s good advice—sometimes. But surely this rule can’t always apply to people who write fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, or (gasp) murder mysteries.
There are times when writing from your own life experience is crucial, and other times when it’s not necessary. Here are a few guidelines to help you determine where that line may be for your story.
Creative Elements: Make them Up
A lot of what makes a novel interesting is the author’s inventive creativity. So go ahead—make up your character’s quirks and backstory, invent a fictional hometown, get crazy with your storylines, or even create a new kind of technology. Ideally, you’ll draw from your observations of the world and people around you, but all of these elements are fair game to improvise.
Head Knowledge: Research
If your story involves real-world locations, careers, organizations, or established methods for doing things, you’ll be happy to know there’s a wealth of free information at your fingertips—but you’ll have to hunt for it.
DON’T just rely on what you’ve seen recycled in other books or movies. If I drew my knowledge of caverns from what I’d seen on TV, my novel’s settings would have had broad, level floors with evenly spaced stalactites. Turns out television caves are only portrayed that way because that’s the easiest way to dress up a big, empty studio room. To really learn about my book’s cavern setting, I started watching GoPro videos from spelunkers in real-world caves. Cave topography is much more chaotic and random than it appears on TV—and thus far more dangerous (and interesting!) for my heroine to navigate through.
Do the research, and favor first-person accounts when you can. Read travel blogs or reviews from people who’ve actually traveled to that city in Italy. Browse technical manuals or watch the training videos your character would have likely encountered during his education. The Internet is crammed with very specific information for people in niche fields. If you can dig down and “eavesdrop” in these places, you’ll be able to write intelligently about your subject.
Life Knowledge: Consult an Expert
Sometimes research can give you a bunch of information, but not all the nuance. If you’re dealing with a complex or sensitive topic, you may want to get someone who has real-world experience to help you out.
Culture is one of these things. Part of Crack the Stone is set in a city inspired by various places in North and West Africa. I did careful research to determine what kind of technology the city would have, what food people would eat, and how they would react to newcomers. But I also knew that culture can be tricky, and subtle things that outsiders don’t notice can be a huge deal to people within. (Consider the difference between calling someone’s child a “little lamb” versus a “little pig.” Both are cute farm animals but have very different cultural connotations.)
In my case, I hired a sensitivity reader from Nigeria and asked her to alert me to any unintentional faux-pas or inaccuracies, and to help me with Yoruba and Igbo names. You can find a wealth of sensitivity readers online (you can start with Fiverr.com) who represent a variety of cultures, and who can also give insight on disabilities, family backgrounds, and other topics that require an insider’s perspective to get right.
If a sensitive topic is especially crucial to your story, consider watching first-person interviews about it, or even conducting some interviews of your own.
Heart Knowledge: Write What You Know
There are some topics that are just so crucial to your story that you really do have to rely on your personal experience. Crack the Stone is a retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which is a father-daughter story. I struggled in an early draft to try to make my story work with a male goblin and a little human girl. But at every step, I had to take my real-life experience as a mom of two boys and try to filter it through “But how would a little girl act? How would a father feel about this?” It was robbing my story of authenticity.
But when I tweaked the story to make my main character female and the child a little boy, it’s like a faucet turned on. Research and creativity were not enough. I had to write my motherhood experience from my heart, and that’s when the story came to life.
Sometimes when you start out you don’t know where the line is between head knowledge and heart knowledge. But if you’re struggling to make your story feel authentic, try changing it to fit your own experience and see if it works better.
I hope this guide helps you as you determine what you need to research and what you need to know through experience. Happy writing, friends!
Photos courtesy of Emily Golus.
Emily Golus is an award-winning fantasy author with nearly 20
years of professional writing experience. Golus aims to engage, inspire, and
show how small acts of courage and love can create meaningful change. Her books
feature diverse cultures, authentic characters, and cinematic fantasy settings.
Her first novel, Escape to Vindor, won the 2017 Selah Award for
Young Adult Fiction, and was followed by a sequel, Mists of
Paracosmia. Her newest book is Crack the Stone, a fantasy retelling of
Victor Hugo’s Les
Golus lives in Greenville, SC, with her husband, Mike, who is her greatest supporter. They have two active little boys and enjoy hiking, making Thai food, and exploring small towns in the Carolinas. For Vindor book news, visit WorldofVindor.com and EmilyGolusBooks.com, and follow her at Instagram.com/WorldOfVindor.