This one time at Writer's Camp…
Write What You Know? I SCOFF At Thee!
I’m horrible at remembering date. I have this massive calendar up on the wall which shows every single appointment and schedule I have for the next few months, and yet I didn’t mail off my dad’s birthday card until the day of (partially because I’m a slacker, though mostly because I looked up and said “Holy crap, it’s June already?”). Oddly, my characters seem to never forget their schedules and appointments.
For most people, it’s “write what you know”. I’ve hated this mantra for the longest time because the writer runs the risk of a very boring book. Quick, explain a David Weber novel.
If you know who Weber is, then I’m certain you mentioned something about the massive naval battles (in sea and space) he writes about. And if you’re like me, you tend to skim his 13 page technical manual he slips into the book at odd intervals (Warshowski sails are neat and all, but do we really need to go over the necessary acceleration to mass discussion in EVERY SINGLE BOOK? C’mon, really?) to get back to the story. Or, God forbid, you’re reading a Tom Clancy novel and you suddenly realize that he’s just making crap up as he goes and slapping words together around it to make it sound technical and intelligent-like (my twentieth birthday, while in the navy, and I realized that Clancy was full of crap… it was a sad day to be a grown up).
Okay, I got a bit off topic there, but the risk you run with writing what you know is that you get cornholed into being a certain type of writer. Your potential to expand into other venues gets overlooked and shot down because damn it, you’re a (insert genre label) writer! Take, for example, John Ringo’s Council War series. It’s a SF book that turns into a very strange fantasy novel because the SF goes away. However, sales sucked because “Damn it, he’s a SF author!” took hold (then some other really weird crap took hold and Ringo wrote Ghost, but we won’t open that can of stale worms today). There Will Be Dragons will remain one of my favorite fantasy novels because he did such an outstanding job at NOT BORING ME. It was outside John’s usual genre, so he had to research and keep it very fresh.
Makes me wonder what I’m doing sometimes, allowing people to say “Oh, you write about science fiction” when only one of my stories is a SF story. The rest of them range from Bangsian fantasy to horror, with a little thriller in there. Maybe I should just slap on a label which reads “Authors, Will Write For Food”?