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"Write what you know"?

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

"Write what you know." Along with "show, don't tell," it's one of the most frequently repeated pieces of writing advice. And, in both cases, it's fair enough… up to a point. Like most rules, it's something to be aware of, not to follow slavishly.

In many areas of fiction, it's manifestly impossible to write directly from personal experience. Historical fiction is one. Okay, I was alive in the 1970s, so I could write about the period with benefit of personal experience, but there's no living writer who could say that about any period before, at a stretch, the First World War.

In science fiction, fantasy, or any other speculative form, it's obviously not possible. You might even say that's the whole point of these genres; that they imagine realities other than our own here and now. No one has ridden a dragon, or a starship. And yet…

And yet, the job of any writer working in realms of the imagination is to make them real to the reader. If we can't connect, we won't turn the page. Much of this is done through characters and their feelings, and as writers we draw on our own experience to make sense of these. Take Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, for example; a resounding rebuttal to those people who still maintain that SF 'doesn't do character'. Rosemary's fractured relationship with her family; Ashby's secret love for the Aeluon, Pei; the curious bond between the tech, Jenks, and the ship's AI, Lovelace; these, and more, are the roots of the book's great emotional depth. I can't speak for Becky Chambers, but I'd be very surprised if she didn't draw on her own emotional history for these, as well as relationships she's observed in others.

It's rather the same for me. I haven't inhabited (IRL) the world of Three Kinds of North—and I am certainly not a 19-year-old girl from a small village where everyone lives in caves. But I have been 19 years old, and I have had parallel experiences, like arriving in a new place where I'm afraid everyone's going to know far more than I do. (In her case, of course, they do, having been there years already.) Jerya's rapid assimilation of the fundamentals of mathematics, among other things, doesn't have parallels in my own life, but I do know how it feels suddenly to go 'ah, yes, now I get it!'. She just has a lot more of these moments in a compressed timeframe.

All fiction is an exercise in imagination; otherwise it's just autobiography with the names changed. Perhaps some forms—historical and SFF most obviously—require more imagination than others but I think that in every case authors blend what they imagine with what they know. Sometimes what we know is the emotional dimension of things, as I've observed for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Sometimes it's the practical reality of something; an example from my own work which I'll go into below is mountain travel.

The depth and detail and texture which bring fiction to life are forged from this mix of imagination and experience. Self-evidently, anyone writing historical fiction must have a good grasp on time and place, which demands a lot of research—but never imagine that SF or fantasy offer a 'get out of jail free' card. In fantasy one might have a magic system which appears to defy the laws of physics, but if the characters travel on the backs of ordinary mundane horses, the writer needs to know how far and how fast laden horses can reasonably travel, and what arrangements need to be made along the way for feeding, watering, and perhaps stabling. People more nerdy than me have worked out exactly how far Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring would have walked or ridden on their journeys and there's no glaring anomalies—although those hobbits do perform some pretty impressive feats of endurance, especially considering the shortness of their legs.

I recently read a blog post by Robin Hobb, writer of fine fantasy novels, titled Fantasy and Research. Worth a read, but here are a few key takeways. First, she trashes the notion that '"I want to write fantasy because you can just make things up." Research, she says, is about "lowering the threshold of disbelief so that the reader can easily step into the story." I take this to mean that if you're going to make a big assumption, like dragons or magic or a warp drive, you have to buttress this with plenty of convincing, three-dimensional, detail. Yes, you can have a warp drive and you can do a bit of technobabble about it (perhaps it relies on handwavium or unobtainium?), but what's it like for the crew or passengers on that ship? Is it roomy or cramped? What do they eat? How long do their voyages take? I've got another work in progress, much more in a traditional SF vein than Three Kinds of North, and I've assumed that interstellar journeys take several weeks even between relatively close systems. And then, that space is at a premium on regular ships so economy passengers travel in an induced coma. And then, that they tend to feel crappy for a day or two afterward. One character (a detective), observing a recent arrival, remarks, "Those nasogastric tubes leave an impression."

The world of The Shattered Moon mostly resembles our own as it was a couple of centuries ago. The big assumption, as far as the Sung Lands are concerned, is the dominance of the Guild of Dawnsingers. Because the general level of science and technology is roughly that of 1800, I have to be sure that everything related to this is consistent. It doesn't have to exactly match any given moment in our history, because in an alternative reality things can develop differently, but can't diverge too far. In a world where steam power, if it exists at all, is in the earliest experimental stages, it seems unlikely that anyone would have any inklings about relativity (remember one of Einstein's famous thought experiments involved moving trains?).

To make this world real and textured and consistent, I sometimes draw on what I know, and sometimes I have to do research. Robin Hobb has some great suggestions about this: I particularly like the idea of looking at kids' reference books in your local library. It's a great way to start, at least, but I'm not sure how far that will get me with the technology of wooden sailing ships.

At the time of writing this post, I'm involved in final preparation of Book Two, The Sundering Wall. This picks up immediately from the end of Three Kinds of North (well, next morning), so it's hardly a spoiler to say what comes next. Jerya, Rodal, and Railu strike out into the mountains—which, as far as they know, are unmapped and untrodden in this age of the world.

You can all work out that there are only a few likely plot-lines for the next phase; at the simplest level, they make the crossing, or they don't. This is a big deal, but it only occupies about the first quarter of the book. The real meat of the story is what they discover afterward, how each of them deals with it, and perhaps is changed by it. That's all I'm saying now, because I'm still pondering how much or little to reveal in the blurb, which I'll aim to have ready in time for my next newsletter (sign up here if you haven't already—there's a free short story as a thank you).

Instead I want to say a bit about the experiences that I've drawn on in writing their mountain journey. Trekking and mountain travel is one subject I can write about from extensive personal experience; indeed, I've written about it many time. One example is the book, Walking the World's Natural Wonders, published in 2008, sadly now out of print but available through used book sellers. You can read my introduction online if you're interested.

If you follow me on Mastodon or Facebook, you'll have seen that I recently shared a 'moodboard' of photos which resonate for me with scenes from the books. Several of these specifically relate to the mountain journey, so here's a screengrab of those.

Top left and bottom right are both in the Pyrenees. Top left is the French side of the Breche de Roland, which is a close match for a particular moment in The Sundering Wall. Bottom right is the head of the Ordesa Canyon, on the Spanish side, which we descended the next day, and this relates to another scene, though not so precisely. The other two are more about feeling than any specific bit of their journey. Bottom left is the headwaters of Snowy Creek on the Rees-Dart Track in New Zealand's Southern Alps. Top right is Monte Paterno in the Dolomites, which again isn't a specific match, but did give me the cover image for The Sundering Wall, as you can see below.

In fact the toughest mountain journey I've ever done doesn't feature in these photos. More than thirty years ago I did the Biafo - Snow Lake - Hispar La - Hispar trek in the Karakoram in Pakistan. To save money we'd opted only to employ porters as far as Snow Lake (which is shown in the banner image at the head of this post).

It's a long story and I can't possibly go into all the details here (but ask me if you're interested). Short version, we crossed the Hispar La (altitude over 5000 metres) and walked down the Hispar Glacier carrying rucksacks weighing over 30 kilos. I've not given Jerya, Rodal and Railu quite that much to carry!

That trek was also the closest I've come to walking without a map. See below for the map we did have, which I'd photocopied from an Italian expedition book (as you can tell from the image, 'Ghiacciaio' meaning 'glacier'). The Hispar is about 50km long and the uppermost reaches are missing from this image. The 'x's show where we camped so you can see we didn't make big distances most days.

I couldn't send my characters on a journey quite like this because no one in their world knows the first thing about glacier travel and they don't know the first thing about ice axes and crampons. On the other hand, though this map is pretty darn sketchy and we had to figure out most of the details for ourselves, we still had a lot more to go on than Jerya, Rodal and Railu do.

Most of all, we knew that people had been this way before and that there were beds and hot meals at the end of it. The three companions have no idea what they will find or whether the crossing is even possible, and that's plenty to contend with. Their loads get lighter as they go on, because they're using up their food. Which is nice in one way, but also worrying when you don't know when you might be able to replenish your supplies.

In sending my characters on a journey like this, I might also have been paying subconscious homage to one of the formative reads of my life, Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Rereading this after my Karakoram journey, I found renewed appreciation for Genly and Estraven's escape across the Gobrin Ice. (There's more about this book's significance for me in an earlier blog entry). I'm sure my writing is also informed by voracious reading of travel and exploration books, including Nicholas Crane's Clear Waters Rising and Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, cited in my previous blog entry. There are many others which align more closely with Jerya, Rodal and Railu's journey. Take for instance Blank On The Map, by Eric Shipton.

As always, what I've written is a blend of imagination and experience, but imagination doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's fuelled by books I've read, places I've seen, TV shows and movies, and other sources too. "Write what you know"? Well, yes, but how do you know things?

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