I took my first creative writing course as an undergraduate student at Sam Houston State University way back in the spring of 1998. That’s twenty years ago this semester, though I prefer not to dwell on the amount of time that has passed. On the first evening of class, the professor stood in front of us and repeated the words that all aspiring writers have no doubt heard repeatedly. Said he, “Write what you know.” “Cool!”, said I. “I’ll write about what I know.” But how do you write what you know when you don’t know?
The class went downhill from there. Of course, you are going to be more comfortable writing about topics that you have some personal knowledge of, be it fiction or non. I write historical fiction. I have not lived in any time period but my own, at least not that I’m aware of. I’ve never been through a bombing raid. I did not take part in the Civil War. So how well do I truly know these subjects if my knowledge was all derived from books?
I can’t really answer that. It’s true, as my last post indicated, that I spent an immense amount of time researching my most recent novel, but that research isn’t the same as living through it. Still, as I began work on my book on 10 MAR 2017, I found myself drawing from some of my own experiences. As a firefighter, I know what burning buildings look like. I’ve smelled roasted flesh. I’ve heard the screams of injured people. And I guess in my own way, these experiences made their way into my novel and I hope will make it a stronger one.
I would say that you don’t have to have in depth personal knowledge of something in order to write about it so long as you are willing to spend the necessary time to get to know the subject or to get to know people who do have that knowledge. Though I’m loathe to call myself a historian, though technically I am, I have conducted numerous interviews over the years doing that very thing. When approached respectfully and in a non-judgmental manner, people may be more willing to talk than you might think. You don’t have to be a detective yourself to write a mystery novel. You don’t have to be a reincarnated Civil War soldier to write a Civil War novel. Just ask the right questions. Read the right books. And talk to the right people. How do you know which of these are the right ones? Well, you’ll know. Have faith in yourself.