Emma Newman: The Untrue Truth Of “Write What You Know”

Emma Newman is undeniably an epic talent, and her wave is about to break on your beach with her newest, the astounding Planetfall. She wanted to come by and talk about a piece of advice with which she disagrees — that ol’ classic, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. So, without further ado: 

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If you’ve read anything about how to write, you’ve probably stumbled across the old chestnut “write what you know.” Being someone of fine taste and refinement, seeing as you’re here at Chuck’s place, you’ve probably also figured out for yourself that this advice is thin at best and downright untrue at its worst.

You could say “hey, it doesn’t have to be taken literally – ‘what you know’ can incorporate emotional experiences that can be applied to new situations, not just intellectual experiences, and you’d be right. But what I want to talk about here, is how you can approach a gulf between your own experience and that of your character.

The easy ways first

Let’s get these out of the way. If you want to write about something you don’t know, there’s good old bookish research (which can only take you so far – especially in some areas of SFF) and there’s talking to people. With regards to the latter, it can be hard to find someone who fits the bill completely, so it may be that you need to speak to several people. This also helps to reduce the chance of repeating mistakes and churning out trope-ridden material.

What about things that don’t exist?

What can you read or who can you talk to if the job or experience you want to explore in your writing doesn’t exist – either because it is too fantastical or hasn’t been invented yet? Or what if it is only experienced by people you have no hope of being able to talk to?

That’s the situation I was in when writing Planetfall. My protagonist, Ren, lives in a colony that has been founded on a planet millions of miles from Earth, using technology that is in its infancy in the real world. She is a 3-D printer engineer and is responsible for maintaining the 3-D printers that the colony depends upon. She’s also responsible for building whatever the colonists need, be it housing or equipment. Industrial 3-D printers have been around for a few years, but not as sophisticated as the ones in Planetfall and the home printer technology in my novel is decades ahead of what exists now.

At no point in my working life have I been an engineer. I have an uncle who is and I talked to him about the 3-D printers they use at his workplace, but the technology he uses is well behind that which I wanted to write about. What I learned from him, coupled with my own research about current 3-D printing technology, enabled me to make decisions about how I think it could develop.

What we’re really talking about here

What I was much more concerned about was making the character of Ren seem plausible as an engineer. That’s what people are worried about when they stress the whole “write what you know” thing, after all. Drawing upon personal experience is an easy way to make a character sound and feel right. Ren suffers from an anxiety disorder and whilst it’s not the same as the one I wrestle with, it does have some similar aspects in terms of experience, so I could draw upon those for that aspect of her.

In writing Planetfall, I learned that making Ren seem plausible as an engineer isn’t just about what she says or does. It isn’t just the terminology she uses or the technical knowledge she has. Those are all important, of course, but for me, the most important thing to get right was the way she sees the world. I had to find a way to convince the reader that they are experiencing the world and events through the eyes of someone who thinks like an engineer. That was the real challenge.

Transferable skills

Some years ago, back when I was busy screwing up my life to avoid writing (that’s a whole different story), I was a designer dressmaker. I ran my own tiny little business designing and making predominantly ball gowns, wedding dresses and some RPG costumes for people. I did it with skills that were self-taught, so I was probably doing all sorts of things wrong, but for about two years or thereabouts that’s how I earned a living.

One of the things I remember about that time was how my highly specialised job changed the way I saw the world, in particular, the clothes I saw people wearing. I never really noticed it before I knew how to fit clothes properly (I used to draw up my own patterns from scratch, so fitting was a critical part of the job right from the ground up) but once I learned, I was suddenly living in a world where it seemed 95% of business men wore ill-fitting suits. I would find myself walking down the high street having to force myself to not run up to random people and start pinning their clothes so they would fit properly. It made buying clothes for myself at high street shops practically impossible, as an off-the-peg ‘good enough’ fit wasn’t anything close to that any more.

Another effect of that job was the ability to effectively mentally “explode out” clothing into the separate pattern pieces it would have been made from, and also mentally get an idea of the way to cut a pattern in the early stages of a design. Clothing and its construction became a technical thing as well as an aesthetic thing.

Thinking back to that time helped me to write Ren because it made me consider carefully how being the one that made things in the colony would affect the way she sees it. The details matter – details that wouldn’t even occur to anyone else – like what exactly the outside of the buildings are covered with and why and how the doors work. Memories of decisions made in the design process are just as valuable as the end result. Problems are approached logically and systematically, and the ones that defy logic are wrestled with uncomfortably, as unnatural, unfamiliar things. She notices who designs their own printed objects and who merely uses standard printer templates – and judges them on it too.

We’re back to write what you know, aren’t we?

This is a form of that advice, I suppose. I know what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of a designer and constructor, only my experience was in dressmaking rather than 3-D printing and engineering. But it was enough to enable me to see the world as I imagine Ren would, rather than as a writer sitting at a computer dreaming it all up. For me, rooting myself in experiences as close to my characters as possible – even though they may not be exactly the same – is the most joyous thing about both roleplaying games and about writing. Seeing and experiencing the world as someone else is the thing I enjoy most as a role player and the thing I am always striving to convey in the characters I write.

So the next time you want to write a character with a very different job to your own, and all other avenues of research are exhausted or non-existent, I invite you to see if you can match a skill set you have in a different area with one your character has, and use that as a way to get into their mindset. If nothing else, it can be an interesting way to think about your own skills differently and it will definitely help with your roleplaying too. What’s not to love?

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Emma Newman writes dark short stories and science fiction and urban fantasy novels. ‘Between Two Thorns’, the first book in Emma’s Split Worlds urban fantasy series, was shortlisted for the BFS Best Novel and Best Newcomer awards. Emma’s next book, Planetfall, will be a standalone science fiction novel published by Roc in November. Emma is a professional audiobook narrator and also co-writes and hosts the Hugo-nominated podcast ‘Tea and Jeopardy’ which involves tea, cake, mild peril and singing chickens. Her hobbies include dressmaking and playing RPGs. She blogs at www.enewman.co.uk and can be found on Twitter as @emapocalyptic

Planetfall

Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Planetfall: Indiebound | Amazon

15 comments

  • Excellent article and advice. Thank you. I was considering how to approach writing my latest character who is a soldier. Strangely it never occurred to me to draw on my past experience as a self defender instructor and nightclub bouncer to help me inform the character’s actions. So thank you for pointing that out!

  • I have a bit of a different take on this. I think what Emma is doing is showing HOW to write what you know, but I question the entire proposition of write what you know. As I tell my writing clients, this is yet another example of those sad-ass bumper stickers pieces of “writer’s wisdom.” The entire advice–which doesn’t fit well on a bumper sticker, should be, “Write what you can convince the reader you know.” If one only wrote what they knew, they could never write a book set in the future or distant past, write from a different gender or even an animal’s pov, write a murder story unless they’d rendered someone room temperature, etc., etc. But, if you can write a story that convinces the reader you know, you’ve succeeded. I hate all these bumper stickers of writer’s “wisdom.” Like that, “Show, don’t tell.” Well, excuse me, but there are plenty of times when it’s proper to tell. That’s what exposition and sequels and climbing into a character’s mind are all about. If you only show and don’t tell, you don’t have a novel, you have a screenplay. It’s what gives a novel the depth a screenplay can’t–the author can tell… and should, in the proper places. Being older–born at the time when dinosaurs went on the endangered list–I’ve seen this kind of crap proliferate in the last twenty years or so. It kind of mirrors the mindset we see often these days when people want to learn to write quickly and easily and are looking for some kind of bullshit list of twenty bullet-points as a writer’s creed. Okay. Rant over. I really enjoy your blog, Chuck. Read it daily, dude!

  • Thank you, Emma. Thank you, Chuck. That was a deeply interesting point of view and I had an ‘Aha!’ moment that was completely non-sexual in nature but nevertheless highly satisfying. I’m looking forward to reading Emma’s books.

  • Love the cover art for your book, beautifully done. I know, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover…but human nature being what it is, I prefer a pretty, well crafted cover to a badly designed one. Somehow I conflate the artwork with the writing. If my theory holds true, you have written a masterwork.

  • Hey, Emma, I read this post and Chuck’s glowing reference, bought your book, followed you on twitter. Very disappointed that you promptly unfollowed me (@JJToner_ya) on twitter. WHY?

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