Monday, May 23, 2011

How do you "write what you know" in SF/F?

When I wrote last week about "write what you know," I got one very interesting comment that made me want to write about the topic again. Conor said, "I sometimes find it difficult to call upon personal experiences when writing science fiction, especially scenarios that are somewhat out of my element."

Yes, indeed. I think that this question might apply in some ways to both fantasy and science fictional scenarios. After all, you're dealing with a completely foreign environment in which all kinds of things are different and unexpected. How the heck do you write "what you know" then?

Well, one answer is that you can always learn things through research in the scientific or folkloric arenas required by the fantastical setting of the story. That is a pretty straightforward answer, and always worth pursuing. Indeed, I recently read an article that suggests we keep things as "real" as possible in science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding. It's an excellent point.

A more fundamental answer, though, would be that many "things you know" are hidden just underneath all the foreignness. When I read a story, the thing that strikes me most strongly is usually not the trappings of the environment, but the nature of the human experience that I'm sharing. That "human experience" is something I know. Even my aliens have human-like experience and psychology, and emotional states and reactions that resonate as familiar. Otherwise I'm not convinced anyone would want to read stories about them!

Here are a few examples of "things I know" that I have put into stories just by adding an alien twist:
  • I know what it is like to speak a language and not have a native speaker recognize me as a legitimate speaker. I put David Linden in precisely this situation in "Let the Word Take Me."
  • I know what it is like to be treated unfairly, like a second-class citizen, and not have any reasonable recourse. I put Rulii in this situation in "Cold Words."
  • I know what it is like to have a superior not understand the worth of my contribution to a project. I put Lynn Gable in this situation in "At Cross Purposes."
  • I have personally witnessed the in-between culture that can form between foreign visitors to a country and natives of that country - a context in which actual cultural engagement is not welcome. I am putting Adrian Preston in that situation in my story-in-progress called "The Liars."
When you're working in science fiction or fantasy, you can take elements of human experience and turn them into themes that you can then push much further than you might be able to in real life. That is one of the incredible strengths of the genre - it both extrapolates from real life and causes readers to reflect back on it. I believe that "what we know" lies at the core of what makes such stories successful.

It's something to think about.


  1. Hi, Juliette—great article! As a fantasy writer, this is something I often tend to think about and must constantly remind myself of the strength and authenticity I can bring to my story by appealing to the human nature we all share.

    "[Y]ou can take elements of human experience and turn them into themes that you can then push much further than you might be able to in real life." That's the crux of it for me. Especially when writing about characters with special abilities, a friend once explained this as basically "amping up human potential." I think this is a great way to look at it: taking what’s already familiar to people, exaggerating it and making it larger than life as we know it.

    As a young writer, I’ve sometimes found it daunting to approach certain fantastical situations in my fiction, knowing that potential readers are going to expect a certain amount of verisimilitude as well. As you say, there's always research to get a basic grasp on what is known to be possible, but if I can remember to write from a human position and try to relate my story from that perspective then I find it so much easier to approach my writing with a sense of personal knowledge and confidence. Especially when dealing with a make-believe setting.

    Thank you for sharing your insights!

  2. Oh! Another thing: the power of empathy. I think this is one of the greatest gifts people have. In conjunction with imagination, it can be a powerful tool in the realm of sf/f.

    Empathy makes it possible for authors and readers to relate to characters who are in extraordinary or unusual situations in the first place!

  3. Thanks so much, Tiyana! I agree with you about the power of empathy. Maybe this is one of the reasons why people have been telling stories to teach life lessons for so many thousands of years. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Yes! I approach writing fantasy like that too. I choose experiences and feelings and explore them in my writing. The fantasy elements are pretty much the icing that makes my exploration a bit more tolerable for the readers.


  5. Sounds good, Misha! Thanks for commenting.

  6. One approach to "write what you know" is to know more.

  7. I agree! Writers should constantly strive to learn as much as they can. Thanks for the comment, OFLoinn!

  8. My blog on this very matter, with a handy link on writing what you *don't* know (though writing from experience certainly helps).

  9. Oh, yes, absolutely! When I love SF and Fantasy, I love it because it reflects human dilemmas and human emotions. That is why I'm attempting to write in those fields. Great post!

  10. Thanks, Mary! Good luck with your writing.