If you’re supposed to write what you know…

September 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

This weekend I went on a hike through the Enchantment Lakes wilderness in Washington State. There were a half-dozen sky-blue glacial lakes, streams with water so clear you could almost mistake the beds for being empty, and mountains so steep I couldn’t conceive of the geological process that had formed them.  They looked like enormous man-made walls and towers.

On the flip side, it was 21 miles (including a detour), 5,000 feet of elevation up, and 7,000 down.  I felt like Frodo Baggins.  I’d describe my hiking companion as Sam, but height-wise he’s more like Treebeard.  I’d describe the hike as grueling, but that doesn’t do it justice, which brings me to my point…

One of my favorite writing quotes is from George R. R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones, and it goes something like this:  If an author is supposed to write what they know, then I think it’s an author’s job to know everything.  It’s hard to write (well) about hiking, traveling through the woods, or climbing over mountains if you’ve never done any of those things.  Of course there are other ways to learn about things like books, documentaries, and librarians, but nothing can beat experiencing it for yourself.

In the first six miles I was talking about how we should choose a longer hike next time.  By the top of the pass, I was cold and hungry, but filled with awe at the beauty around me and contentment at reaching the highest point of the hike.  By mile 20, my left knee was throbbing, I felt blisters starting on both feet, and I just focused on every step bringing me closer to the car and dinner.  In the course of one day I experienced dozens of moments that will bring more life to characters enduring similar things in my stories.  Could I have gotten this all from a book or two?  Probably, but the problem is then you’re crafting characters and settings based on second-hand information.  It’s especially important to draw on personal experience in fantasy and science fiction where there are countless things that you can’t experience first hand.


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§ 3 Responses to If you’re supposed to write what you know…

  • Kim says:

    … this reminds me of some of Asaro’s work.
    I can remember an entire (interesting!) dissertation on irish coffee and the bars that serve it, within one sci fi story.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Some of my favorite science fiction is about everyday things in a different time or setting. For example, Saturn Rising, by Arthur C. Clarke, is a short story about entrepreneurship and hotels, the hotel just happens to be on Titan. I haven’t read Asaro though. I’ll have to look her up.

  • Paul Miller says:

    I agree, and readers will easily pick up on whether or not something sounds authentic or plausible. The problem is if you don’t know much. That’s my worry.

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