One of the most common pieces of advice writers are given by other writers is to “write what you know.” I may even have mentioned it in some way in a previous Writing Wednesday. I, like so many others, believe this nugget of wisdom to be absolutely paramount in writing – that is, at least, if you want your work to be any good.
I may anger a lot of people for this one, but let’s compare two pieces of literature (and the term is used lightly for one of them): Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Unfair comparison? Kind of the purpose of this exercise.
In this corner, Don Quixote, widely considered the first European novel, and one of the greatest works of fiction ever penned, about an old, retired landowner in 15th Century Spain who decided to don an ancient suit of armor and become a knight-errant, righting wrongs and just generally being the Dos Equis guy. Written by Miguel de Cervantes, the real-world Dos Equis guy. Seriously. The guy’s life was crazy. I’m just gonna copy and paste here:
“In 1569, Cervantes moved to Rome, where he served as a valet to Giulio Acquaviva, a wealthy priest who was elevated to cardinal the next year. By then, Cervantes had enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish Navy infantry regiment and continued his military life until 1575, when he was captured by Algerian corsairs. After five years of slavery he was released on ransom from his captors by his parents and the Trinitarians, a Catholic religious order. He subsequently returned to his family in Madrid.
In 1585, Cervantes published a pastoral novel named La Galatea. Because of financial problems, Cervantes worked as a purveyor for the Spanish Armada, and later as a tax collector. In 1597, discrepancies in his accounts of three years previous landed him in the Crown Jail of Seville. In 1605, he was in Valladolid, just when the immediate success of the first part of his Don Quixote, published in Madrid, signaled his return to the literary world. In 1607, he settled in Madrid, where he lived and worked until his death. During the last nine years of his life, Cervantes solidified his reputation as a writer; he published the Novelas ejemplares (Exemplary Novels) in 1613, the Journey to Parnassus (Viaje al Parnaso) in 1614, and in 1615, the Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses and the second part of Don Quixote.”
For those of you who don’t want to read all that, the short version is that he saw a lot and experienced a lot of shit in his life. Just this brief, brief summary of his existence calls out to the Don Quixote character. Cervantes’ military and religious background give him the license to write about morality, justice, and honorable combat. His time in prison gives him license to write about injustice, corruption, and the underbelly of the world. Cervantes took parts of himself and molded them into the hero La Mancha needed. Don Quixote is so popular because the character, despite his outlandish and somewhat unrealistic choices, feels organic and real, backed by the knowledge and experience of a man who’s been there.
In the other corner, Fifty Shades of Grey, recent explosive bestseller, about a young virgin woman who enters into a contractual BDSM relationship with a young, handsome, tortured billionaire – like some kinky Bruce Wayne. Written by E.L. James, an ex-television executive who initially wrote fanfiction under the name Snowqueen’s Icedragon. Not even lying. Look it up. I’m going to copy and paste, the same way I did with Cervantes:
In 1963, Leonard was born Erika Mitchell, to a Chilean mother and Scottish father, a BBC cameraman.  Raised in Buckinghamshire, Leonard read history at the University of Kent, before becoming a studio manager’s assistant at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield.
James initially wrote fanfiction under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”, with her most notable work being a Twilight fanfiction that eventually developed into Fifty Shades of Grey. James has spoken of her shock at the success of the book. “The explosion of interest has taken me completely by surprise” she said. James has described the Fifty Shades trilogy as “my midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there, and that’s it.” She did not start to write until January 2009, as she revealed while still active on fanfiction.net as Snowqueen’s Icedragon: “I started writing in January 2009 after I finished the Twilight saga, and I haven’t stopped since. I discovered Fan Fiction in August 2009. Since then I have written my two fics and plan on doing at least one more. After that… who knows?”
Note the differences. E.L. James’ life was modern and uneventful and fairly normative. Is there anything wrong with that? Fuck no. But look at that quote in there, about her work – “my midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there, and that’s it.” Nothing of her experiences or her expertise, of her knowledge or of her life. Only fantasy. Was there fantasy in Don Quixote? Absolutely. But it wasn’t in there, by itself. You, dear reader, have certainly had a fantasy or ten in your life. It happens to us all. But what happens, nine times out of ten, when that fantasy becomes reality? It’s nothing like you imagined. Reality gets its grubby mitts all over the fantasy, and sometimes that can be really disappointing. However, it is that same process that tempers a fantasy into something real and believable and organic.
What I want you to do, if you’re still on the fence here, is discuss Don Quixote with any retired military men you may know. See how they feel about the piece. Then I want you to discuss Fifty Shades of Grey with anyone you may know who is in a BDSM relationship. See how they feel abut the piece. I suspect there will be vastly different results.
This is because E.L. James didnt’ write what she KNEW, but rather what she HOPED. It’s not so different from reading a child’s story, in which the President can tell vampires “NO! Go home! Stop being vampires!” (THIS IS AN ACTUAL EXAMPLE OF SOMETHING I WROTE AS A CHILD) and the vampires fucking listen. That would absolutely never happen if vampires and the President were in the same room.
Where am I going with this? Well, now that I’ve broken down the concept of writing what you know, I want to tell you to LEARN. There is no excuse for a writer not to constantly broaden their horizons. A writer should be one of the most educated people any of us know. A writer should be the guy/girl who, when a topic comes up, can lean forward and say “Oh yeah, I spent some time doing X in Y.” This can be difficult in this day and age – school is expensive, and many of us have families or jobs that keep us from just up and running off. My suggestion? Creative use of vacations, and hobbies.
I cannot stress the importance of hobbies. I want you to think of all the things you do in your spare time. List them off. How many fingers is that? Here’s my list: I read, I paint, I sculpt a bit (not very well), and I’m learning to carve. My goal by the end of this year? Get onto two hands worth of hobbies. I don’t need to master them this year, hell I don’t need to master them in this LIFETIME, but I need to give them a shot. This way, when I’m writing, if I decide to write someone who does one of my hobbies professionally, I’m one step ahead of someone who’s never held a paintbrush/book/carving knife/bullwhip/longbow/violin/objectofhobby.
There’s a reason “Renaissance man” is a compliment.