As I was learning the craft of fiction writing (for the past forty years or more), I kept hearing “Write what you know!” I tried to stick to it, I really did, but then I would get into areas I didn’t have a clue on. In those days, we didn’t have a cornucopia of information at our fingertips. We had to do legwork.
Fortunately, my city’s university was nearby, and they kindly gave me the use of their incomparable library. Guess what I was researching? Egypt in prehistoric times, around the time that Osiris and Isis and the rest of the gang walked the Earth. I didn’t believe they were really gods, but that they were evolved beings who had come out of Atlantis to help the fearful people of Egypt.
Anyhow, you know what prehistoric means, right? It means before history was recorded. The university struggled valiantly to give me what I needed, but the problem was there wasn’t much. Not having a degree in Egyptology or Archaeology, I finally gave up. I had the whole story in my head, but I figured I couldn’t get enough research to make it real. The realization also hit me that I didn’t have the writing skills yet to write the kind of story I wanted to tell. I put all the research and outlines away for a kinder time in the future. I’ve lost the edge for writing the novel now, although I have lugged all those binders of research from Saskatoon to three places in Calgary to Esterhazy, you know, just in case.
I learned some valuable lessons.
- Write what I know (more about this).
- Don’t try to fly before I can walk.
- If something needs research, don’t pick a subject that is before history was recorded. Either that or recall a past lifetime in that life and sidestep the research (okay, I’m kidding – well, partially kidding).
I wrote a few stories about things that I know—not novels, but short stories and articles. My stuff finally started selling. Then fantasy came along, stole my heart and my talent, and here I am, a fantasy writer.
But what do I know about magic? What do I know about wizards, and evil magicians, and ogres, and elves? How can I research these things? Yet I have been reading fantasy all my life. My creative soul is steeped in these stories. I DO know about wizards, and evil magicians, and ogres, and elves. Perhaps at arm’s length, but I do know them.
My next task was to figure out how to make them my own. And I realized my grandfather would have made a splendid general in a fantasy fiction army. I knew my grandfather and his personality and characteristics very well. Then there was the kid that used to play dodge ball with me and a bunch of other kids in grade 8. He used to sing “Ya chew tobacco and ya spit on the floor…” taunting us to hit him with the ball. It didn’t hurt that he was a 13-year-old hunk either, and he had such a light of mischief in his eyes. There was an elf if I ever saw one.
Ogres were tougher. I don’t know many ogre-types. Then I remember a giant of a man who had proposed to my mother many years ago, after she had been a widow for long enough to get lonely. He was a gentle man, an honest man, and a loving man. But he wasn’t a thinker, his English was poor, and he had no idea how to dress. His idea of dressing up was clean overalls and a white shirt. Mom wasn’t in love with him and ever so kindly turned him down. He was crushed. I felt so sorry for him. But there was a role model for my gentle giant.
One of the lawyers I worked for at one time was a charmer. He could bring you around to his point of view with a stunning smile and some earnest words. There was my model for a wizard.
Evil magician wasn’t that hard either. One of my bosses when I was 17 was a mean old man, and I figured in another incarnation he would be a really evil magician.
The point I’m trying to make here is that you know more than you think. You know what it’s like to miss someone, or get a windfall, or have a complex problem to solve, or have too much to do. All this is grist for your fantasy and will make your characters living, breathing, memorable, well-defined.
I love dogs. My husband and I have three of them, and I know all of their characteristics, what they like to eat, what their individual barking sounds like, who’s smart, who’s vain, who’s protective. It’s a wonderful way to have a second family.
So, in my work-in-progress, I created a dog, a puppy really, who mysteriously joins the little band of adventurers and may or may not actually be a god. It was pure joy to write this part because it went so fast. I didn’t have to make up puppy traits. I had them right at my fingertips. And when it was finished, I was happy.
So yeah, write what you know, but dig deeper into what you know to see what props you can use for the story you want to tell. One nice thing about a fantasy world. YOU are the god and you get to make up the rules. It’s just like magic.