Writing What You Know – SubconsciouslyNovember 14, 2009 at 10:26 AM | Posted in Writing | 6 Comments
I’ve often heard people discuss the pros and cons of “writing what you know”. I’ve always been a fan of writing whatever the heck you want, whether or not you know it – we all know I’d love to have an excuse to go spelunking or set off a rocket launcher – but sometimes we get stuck writing what we know without meaning to. We do it on a subconscious level, and sometimes it isn’t a good thing.
For example! I am one of the few teenagers who can think to herself, “I need to go to the library,” and then walk outside, get into my car, and drive there. I hear most people my age have to beg and plead with these things called parents to get possession of the car keys.
I recently realized that the MC in my last book had the same car liberties that I did. Now, it just so happened I could justify this based on my MC’s socioeconomic status and the consequent likelihood of her parents having three cars, but I didn’t think of this until after I had written the whole book. If it had been any of my other books I wouldn’t have been able to get away with it. But I had gotten so used to having a car at my disposal that I automatically gave my MC a car as well. I didn’t think twice about it.
Similarly, unless I make a point to avoid it, my books are typically set in a suburban area with a predominantly white population. I swear, I’m not racist! I just happen to have spent the majority of my life in a predominantly white suburban area and so it has become my default setting. Parts of my characters’ high schools bear a striking similarity to the high school I attended, their houses have the same layout as my house, or my friend’s house, or my grandparents’ house, and they don’t often eat – *googles obscure food* – surstromming.
They don’t eat surstromming because I’ve never had it and therefore, unless I’m making a pointed effort to show that my character is from Sweden, it’s never going to occur to me to feed him/her fermented herring.
I think of distance in terms of kilometers and temperature in terms of Celsius. (And yet I still think of height in feet and weight in pounds. Why, yes, I am a Canadian who is flooded by American media. How did you guess?) This proved to be problematic when I had someone from the US reading my book. One of my characters said something about the weather being a bit nippy, since it was only ten degrees (read: ten degrees Celsius) out. My poor reader was sitting there going, “Nippy? You call ten degrees (read: ten degrees Fahrenheit) nippy? You Canadians are crazy!”
We eventually got the discrepancy sorted out, but it was the first time I really realized what sort of things I took for granted.
(I had this epiphany again when I was reading a car chase scene in a book and the characters were “speeding” along the highway doing a hundred. I was sitting there going, “Dude. You’re on a highway.” Then I realized the publisher was American, converted miles to kilometers, and was more suitably worried for the characters’ safety, but I digress.)
It’s when we write things without thinking about them that we’re truly writing what we know, and we have to make a concerted effort to stop and write something we don’t know. Generally, it isn’t a problem, but from time to time it will cause a hitch in our otherwise ingenious novels. So we need to be aware of this rut forged by our experiences. Hopefully, as time passes, we will widen it. Maybe one day I will travel to Germany and eat enough schnitzels (schnitzels are German, right?) that I’ll start feeding my characters schnitzels for dinner. Until then, I’ll have to make do with…*tries to think of typical Canadian dinner* Um. Poutine?
Anyway, tell me: what sort of things do you write without meaning to?
– Becca Cooper (AKA Elusive)