Writing What You Know – Subconsciously

November 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)



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  1. Great post Elu!

    I totally get what you mean by writing subconsciously! For example, the way I’ve imagined by characters house–the layout of the rooms–is nearly identical to my house.

    But it’s helping that my setting is literally what it would be like across the country. I try my best to make things as different as possible for my main character–for example, I’m sending her to private school, making her ride the train, etc etc. But things can’t help leaking through. I’ve just realized that her Dad’s job is the equivalent of my Dad’s job! And that she mysteriously has no grandparents other than one grandmother, like me.

    Really great post. I’m on the lookout for these kinds of things now!

  2. Poutine? What’s that?

    Typical dinner here: Baby back ribs?

  3. Awesome post, Becca!
    I’m not such a big fan of the high school setting. I’m sure I’ll write a book with one eventually, but for now my WIPs include a road trip across the midwest and a summer spent in an island beach town in Jersey. I have taken a road trip across the midwest, and I have spent a few weeks on an island beach town in Jersey, so, yeah. I’m using my experiences. I guess the downside to this is running out of experiences to write about… but hopefully by that time, I’ll be older, so I’ll be able to go have more of them, haha.

  4. Great post!
    I do the same thing with my settings. It occurred to me a while ago that many of the houses in my stories are like those of people I knew growing up.
    I make an effort to keep things different, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

  5. That’s too funny about the measurement thing. I’m Canadian too. I still can’t think in kilograms. Not sure why not. My weight sounds a lot nicer in kilograms than in lbs.

    Great post! It is a lot easier writing about something you know about, especially when dealing with settings. It’s more credible that way. Nothing wrong with that.

  6. I kind of noticed that as well. I’m not saying my MC is based totally off me, but my MC started out as the embodiment of my feelings (my cynicism), and now I’ve evolved her to kind of match up with my feelings today. She used to be such a cynical, pessimistic girl, and now she’s just rather neutral with everything, kind of like how I am, except I’m an extreme optimist.

    But as for the rest of my novel, I can’t think of what I’ve written that I didn’t have to research. I had to research pretty much everything. I’m trying to tap into my subconscious here and see if there’s anything in Witch Tourniquet that has what I know, but I just can’t think of anything. I think the only thing that involves the “write what you know” is the feelings of the characters, the way they view the world. I’ve viewed the world so differently through each stage of my life (I started this novel at 14, am now 19), and each character seems to represent the different feelings I had at each age I’ve been.

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