The Craft of Writing: Write What You Know.At some point, someone has probably told you to write what you know. But fiction is, by definition, made up, so what does that even mean?
Okay, so. On the one hand, when you’re writing fiction, you can’t (at least in a literal sense) “write what you know,” because you’re writing about things that nobody knows. So you don’t literally write what you know, of course.
On the other hand, you do write what you know; it’s vitally important to reader immersion.
On the third hand, you write what you research, not what you know.
Nobody knows what interstellar travel is like, what dragons eat, what space aliens look like, or what space wizards with laser swords can do. The purpose of writing fiction is, well, to write fiction. You make shit up. That’s kinda your job, you know?
Now, if you’re doing this properly, you make shit up that’s consistent and coherent. You establish the rules, which can be basically whatever you want them to be as long as you’re consistent, and then you follow them. Inconsistency throws your reader out of the story.
But you do.
“What you know” is’nt the details of alien physiology or space travel or laser swords, because nobody knows those things. It’s the deeper stuff. If you want audiences to accept your stories, there’s stuff you must get right: What it feels like to lose someone you love. What it feels like to want to oppose evil. What it feels like to fall for someone you shouldn’t fall for.
Stories, even science fiction stories with spaceships and robots and laser swords, aren’t about spaceships or robots or laser swords. They’re about people. You can make up stuff about spaceships and robots and laser swords, as long as you get the people right.
That’s why, perhaps paradoxically, it’s harder to write a good sex scene than a space battle. If you’re not experienced with a particular kind of sex, but your readers are, they’ll know.
I’ve used this example before, but it’s still a good one (you can probably guess what book it appears in): He took off the nipple clamps. She sighed with relief.
Oh no she didn’t. If you’ve ever played with nipple clamps, you know that when you take them off, blood rushes in and it hurts like blazes.
See, the thing is, your audience has never fought in a space battle, so if you get the details wrong it doesn’t matter, because they won’t know. If you get the details wrong in a sex scene it does matter, because they will know—I guarandamntee you if people read your book, someone in your audience has had the kind of sex you’re describing but haven’t had.
So it’s really important to write what you know when it’s something about the human experience.
Eunice and I explore this in our upcoming urban fantasy, which follows a protagonist in 2016 in London who is yanked from her life doing infosec at a small webhosting company in Shoreditch and plunged into a long-running underground war between a guild of spellcasting sex workers and a group of Objectivist Tory rage magicians.
She read a bit I wrote last night and said “Yes, that feels authentic. That kind of focus, that sort of ‘I am trying to solve a problem and I’m pushing everything else aside’ feels real to what an infosec researcher does!” Even though neither of us knows how to cast magic spells whilst trapped inside an alternate London constructed within the mind of a magically altered, sapient cat.
The thing hit the ground in front of her and rolled to its feet. A shape like a head turned toward her. Malevolent red eyes burned in shadowy darkness. “You have got to be fucking kidding me,” May said. “Spencer, if I die here, do I die for real?”
“I’m afraid so, yes. I don’t make the rules.”
“But this is your reality!”
“Not for much longer. It’s a consensus reality, and they have a lot of power on their side. I really need you to do something about that. Sooner would be better.”
The thing in front of her spread its arms. Sharp obsidian blades glittered. “Little busy here dealing with unstoppable nightmare creatures,” May said.
“Well, deal faster.”
The thing sprang. May crouched and spun, flinging the shielding spell up in front of her as she twisted. Blades crashed against it in a shower of red-hot sparks. She felt the impact like a blow in the pit of her stomach and doubled over, gasping.
It twisted and sprang again. Once again, Serene was just there, behind her eyes, working her body like a puppet master. A dense golden diagram lit up in front of her, the lines etched razor-sharp on the air and then gone again before she could understand them. Serene pushed both of May’s hands forward, wrists touching, fingers spread. A bright flare of sexual need beyond anything she’d ever felt before flashed through her for a fragment of an instant and was gone. The thing exploded, hard shards of darkness streaming away from a core of red, a dense cluster of lines and shapes that hung in the air for a moment. Time slowed. May tilted her head. “That looks—”
Run. Serene’s voice in her head.
May frowned, thinking furiously. The world slowed around her, a gleaming diorama embedded in acrylic. The same feeling came over her once more, that sense of studying a bit of malware snagged from some compromised webserver, something in her mind giving meaning and form to the strings of gibberish in front of her. She could, or thought she could, sense the patterns behind the curlicues of red and black smoke trailing from the impossible nightmare creature, tease out the intent hidden behind layers of obfuscation.
May! Serene’s voice echoed again, a disembodied ghost in May’s mind. May pushed it aside, all her attention turned to the puzzle in front of her. She sensed something like writing in the glowing red filaments that curled around the expanding ugly black smear in the air, a secret meaning buried within the random shapes.
May! More urgency in Serene’s disembodied voice. May’s body moved without her conscious awareness, her arms raising, fingers outstretched. She turned toward another of the blade-armed shadow-things as it emerged from an alley between two rough surrealist impressions of buildings, head down, charging fast. She turned herself over to Serene, noting with distant disinterest the flash of intense sexual arousal, the brief dazzling pattern that hung for an instant in the space in front of her, the blast that sent the thing reeling. Her attention stayed doggedly fixed on the puzzle before her, the interlocking, overlapping layers of magical designs that lay at the creature’s core.
May, you really need— Serene’s voice in her head, more stressed now. May shoved it away, her attention focused in a way she normally experienced only when tracking some particularly wily bit of malware that communicated with its C&C servers through especially devious channels. Around her, Spencer’s surrealist London coasted to a stop, like one of those movie effects popular in a certain genre of Hollywood films. Her mind sorted through the dense, layered symbols in front of her, puzzling out a sense of their meanings by feel. May, Serene said. I really think—
“Shh, I almost have it.” She reached out with her mind, concentrating, focusing Serene’s roiling, simmering sexual need, and, for lack of a better word, twisted. One of the symbols in the glowing mass changed, its lines reflowing, forming a crude A inside a circle.
May! Serene’s voice once more, nearly frantic. What have you done?
“Changed the root certificate.” The world sped back up, noise and motion crashing around her. “It’s a chain of trust problem, see?”
What? No, I don’t see. The thing pulled itself together, coalescing into a dark, shadowy figure with long, wickedly hooked blades for arms. Hostile eyes glared at May from the darkness of its face. May, run!
May cocked her head. For a long, breathless moment, the two of them stared at each other, the woman and the nightmare creature, across a cobblestone street in a strange fantasy London. Then May gestured, the slightest flick of her wrist. The thing spun and, without a sound, tore into the second shadow-thing, still pulling itself back together. The blades flashed. Brilliant light strobed where they sliced through smoke and shadow. The second creature disintegrated, falling to the ground in a pile of glittering dust.
That is very much how I feel when I’m disassembling malware: the whole world just stops, and I sort of, I don’t know, feel my way around. Malware code, especially PHP malware, tends to be heavily obfuscated, but you learn to, for want of a better way to put it, feel your way around it, figure out how to de-obfuscate it.
I don’t know how to cast magic spells using mathematical patterns in a surrealist copy of London contained within the mind of a cat, but I do know what that sort of problem-solving feels like. That’s the part I know.
Another co-author and I are currently a massively narratively complex literary novel set in a post-industrial world that has collapsed back to pre-industrial levels. The thing about such a world is that it’s possible for technological civilization to fall and not be able to rise again, because all the easily accessible surface deposits of resources—coal, oil, iron, you name it—are all gone. If civilization collapses and we lose our technological infrastructure, there’s no oil that can be reached, which means no petrochemicals. There’s iron and steel available in places like landfills, but a lot of it is locked up in forms that aren’t easy to work, and without coal, it’s really hard to smelt iron even if you could find surface deposits, which you can’t. It’s a really big problem.
We’re building a society that has all our knowledge—they still have books and encyclopedias and textbooks and such—but without our infrastructure or resources, which is…a challenge to envision, and we’re doing a lot of research. Like seriously, you wouldn’t believe some of the things that’ve ended up in my Google search history because of it.
Nobody knows what would happen in such a scenario, but we can make predictions. We can look at what resources are available to a pre-industrial society set on the earth as it is now, without the ability to dig oil six miles underground or bore through a mile of rock to reach iron ore deposits, and from there work out that such a society would not be able to follow the technological progression of past pre-industrial societies.