“If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.” Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong
“Write what you know” is a familiar adage to most fiction writers. But it’s an adage often misundertood. What it doesn’t mean is is that our stories should be limited to personal experiences and familiar places and pursuits. We also can learn a lot that we don’t already know through research, such as from libraries, the internet, interviews and on-the-ground experiences.
Yet here’s why I love the above quote from Satchmo. Armstrong played the trumpet, and anyone who’s ever taken up a musical instrument knows you begin with the funadamentals, those dreaded scales and exercises. As your facility increases, you develop more complex skills that allow you to make your instrument sing. You’ll soon be expanding your repertoire, taking on more challenging compositions to develop your range and technique. Along the way, particularly if you decide to become a professional, you’ll acquaint yourself with the great artists of your instrument, listening to their recordings, reading about them and when it’s possible, attending their live performances.
Writing fiction has its own disciplinary demands. Most professional writers have had someone approach them and say: “I have this great story. Maybe you could write it for me.” My response has always been a polite “no thank you.” Why? Because there is so much more to an engaging piece of fiction than a “good” story. Certainly, it’s nice to have such a story in mind. But the art of writing fiction comes in the telling, how you write it. Craft matters. We don’t all play musical instruments, but everyone uses language. So it’s easy to think that creating a work of fiction is simple: just find a good story, sit down and write it.
Professional fiction writers approach their art the same way musicians do or graphic artists or architects and engineers. We develop our craft by studying other writers, polishing our language skills, our uses of metaphor and imagery, and especially grammar and sentence structure. We may not practice scales but we need to read, read, read, not just fiction but history, memoirs, biography, science, and so forth. We need to learn to “see” the scenes we want to construct, “hear” the dialogue we want to put in our characters’ mouths. Writing what’s in us is not the same as writing what we know.
To write what’s in us, we draw on what actually is in us, every experience, every snatch of dialogue, every situation in which we’ve ever found ourselves, every piece of information we’ve ever gathered, and yes, our research.