Never in my life have I had to stare down a dragon. It just has never happened. And most likely never will, unless those scientists get super silly.
The good news is that even though I can write about dragons, no one really expects me to have experienced them. But it seems that there are some voices that insist the old saying “write what you know” be taken as a rigid standpoint. But that rigidity can be rooted in two drastically different reasons.
One line of reasoning is that a writer must start from a place of truth and go from there. Now, mostly dabbling in fantasy which drenches itself in unreality, some of that strictness isn’t pointed my way. But, for all the extra worldly aspects of fantasy, if it doesn’t contain the core of emotional truth, it reads pretty poorly.
So, going back back to the dragon, if I wanted this scene to feel real, maybe I should start with the fear of the main character. What have I done where I needed to face my fears? What physical or mental reactions can I remember? Put those on paper.
But why stop there? I know that, even while there have been the occasional intense moment, I have mostly lived a sheltered life. To add more realism, research is called for. Time to turn to firsthand accounts of war, or perhaps police. See what the real world has to offer. If this seems too far, then at the very least I should familiarize myself with fictional accounts in either movies or other books.
Using from fiction is, of course, an area where we need to watch out. Being inspired is one thing. Lifting passages or even simple paraphrasing is dishonest. I don’t want to speak out of turn on legalities, so I’m just going to use the term “yucky” to anything that even leans into plagiarism.
Now there is the scene. But what happens after? Is there any survivors guilt? What about traumatic stress? Being aware of these, and how they may present, can add deeper level of truth to your works. Isn’t it worth the effort to learn about any conditions your unfamiliar with in order to give your reader a better, truer, experience?
Okay, sure. Depending on what your are writing the answer might not be “yes.” Archetypal heroes may not benefit from too much realism. It’s hard to imagine Conan the Barbarian suffering from PTSD. I get it.
But, in general, more awareness, more knowledge, improves our writing.
Now, the big point. If we can look at something as fantastical as an attacking dragon and feel that greater insight can only help the writing, the. Why wouldn’t we apply this to more real world criteria?
If we are writing something other than ourselves, shouldn’t we take the time to learn about the experiences of others?
So, yes, write what you know. But you’d be surprised what you can learn if you put in the time and effort.
I talked about two major camps of “write what you know” didn’t I? Yep. To be honest, the other major camp, that I’m aware of, is a bit of a sensitive area and deserves more than being crammed in at the end.
So, stay tuned for a follow up to this piece.
Thanks, everyone! If you got time please leave a comment!
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