“Write what you know”—next to “show, don’t tell,” that’s probably the advice writers hear most often. It can feel pretty limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you’ve never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers’ memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward as bullets fly past you or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or persuading toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else you know best?
I don’t think so. I think that we can write what we don’t know, and that we don’t have to feel guilty about doing it. Some of the most distinguished fiction writers have done it, admitted it, and encouraged us to follow their examples.
For example, in his autobiography, Mark Twain says some of his characters are based on people he knew. His mother, for example, provided the model for Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly. In general, though, his knowledge of himself gives him the insight he needs into other people. “Broadly speaking,” Twain says, “we are all alike,” so he learns about others “by studying myself carefully and comparing myself with other people and noting the divergences.”
Is Twain right? If we write mysteries, can we use our understanding of ourselves even when we create killers? Well, the motives for murder definitely include anger and hurt, fear and frustration. We’ve all experienced those emotions; when we portray our murderers, we can start with those. If we also think about what Twain calls “divergences”—if we identify the qualities that keep us from acting on our more dangerous emotions—we can imagine a character without those qualities. That gives us our murderer—someone who’s like us in some ways, unlike us in at least one crucial respect.
Edith Wharton, author of such classics as Ethan Frome, makes a similar point in The Writing of Fiction. “As to experience,” she says, “the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.” The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn’t experience itself. It’s more important to have emotional depth, “hearts that can break.” An emotionally stunted person couldn’t create characters readers can care about. But writers must also reflect on the emotions they’ve experienced. Only after we’ve “brooded upon” our experiences can we “make a little go a long way.”
Anthony Trollope, a highly successful Victorian novelist, also believes in making a little go a long way. To this day, his six novels centering on the clergymen of the fictional cathedral city of Barchester are probably his most popular works. In his Autobiography, Trollope says people often asked him what cathedral cities he’d lived in and how he’d become “so intimate” with clergymen and their ways. In fact, Trollope never lived in any cathedral city but London and had no close friendships with clergymen.
Instead, Trollope says, the characters in these novels were “the simple result of an effort of my moral consciousness”: “In writing about clergymen generally, I had to pick up as I went whatever I might know or pretend to know.” The first Barchester novel, he says, sprang from a desire to comment on social “ills” involving the clergy and the press. From this desire, combined with Trollope’s “moral consciousness” and his ability to pick up bits of knowledge (or pretended knowledge) came six novels still praised as classics of realistic fiction.
Today’s writers, too, can find ideas in the social “ills” they read about, and can use their “moral consciousness” to write about things they haven’t experienced. Like many others, I was both amused and appalled by two stories that came out late in 2009—the parents who pretended to fear their young son was aloft in a runaway balloon, and the couple who crashed a White House party. In both cases, apparently, the motive for misbehavior was the desire to get on reality shows. Since I write mysteries, I started wondering whether someone might actually commit murder to become a reality-show star. I came up with an idea for a novella involving a rising politician, a fading beauty queen, a slick gun lobbyist, an ambitious television reporter, a determined police detective.
It felt like a good plot, a good opportunity for humor and social satire. One problem—I don’t know any politicians or beauty queens, any lobbyists or reporters or detectives. I don’t even watch reality shows.
As an academic, though, I’ve known plenty of campus politicians. I’ve known people who cling to past glories, as my beauty queen does, people as smooth and unscrupulous as that lobbyist, as driven to get ahead as that reporter. As for the detective, I imagined what kind of cop my husband might’ve been if he’d chosen police work instead of academics. I tried to create a detective with his alert intelligence, his approach to analyzing people and situations, his sense of humor, his sturdy sense of decency. The resulting novella, One Shot, blends a little experience and observation with a fair amount of imagination. I don’t know if there really is a beauty queen like the one in my novella, a lobbyist like mine, a detective like mine. But I feel confident that there could be. Characters can be realistic even if they aren’t, strictly speaking, based on reality.
Henry James, the revered author of over twenty novels and novellas including Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw, also offers encouraging words to writers yearning to venture beyond the bounds of their experiences. In “The Art of Fiction,” James describes experience as a “huge spider-web” that can catch “every air-borne particle in its tissue.” Like the spider-web, an imaginative mind “takes to itself the faintest hints of life.” A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.
To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants; when, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James that she’d simply passed an open door in Paris once, and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. “The glimpse made a picture,” James says. “It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience.” Writers don’t need much literal experience—not if they have active, fertile minds. The crucial thing, James says, is to “try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!”
“Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost”—has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having anything much to say about them. Other people can grasp at “the faintest hints of life” and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.
I’ll mention a story of my own here, only because I think it shows how any writer can use the “faintest hints of life” to create a work of fiction. Several years ago, my husband and I had dinner at a less-than-great restaurant in Toledo, Ohio. Not far from us I noticed an elderly man wearing a baggy sweater, sitting alone at a table. The waitress brought him a martini and a glass of water, and he went through what looked like a ritual: Drink a sip of martini, replace it with a splash of water, take another sip of martini, add another splash of water—sip and splash, sip and splash, until both glasses were empty. The waitress then brought him soup, a roll, a basket of crackers. Slowly, he ate the soup and all the crackers, then wrapped the roll in a napkin and put it in his pocket. Next, the waitress brought him coffee and something wrapped up to go—a sandwich, maybe. He took a long time with the coffee. Twice, the waitress refilled his cup and paused to chat; once, someone who might’ve been the manager walked over to chat with him, too. When my husband and I left, the man was still sitting at his table, drinking coffee, eyes roaming hungrily over everyone in the restaurant.
Did glancing at that man from time to time for an hour or so qualify as an experience? Compared to traveling to India or pulling off a bank heist, it wasn’t much. During the weeks that followed, though, I couldn’t get that man out of my mind. Why did he stretch his meal out so long, and why did he take half his food home? Maybe he couldn’t really afford to eat at a restaurant, but felt so lonely that he couldn’t deny himself the small pleasure of being around people for a few hours. Maybe the roll would be his breakfast the next morning, and the sandwich—or whatever it was—would be his lunch; maybe that’s how he justified treating himself to a restaurant dinner. And the food at that restaurant was lousy. Why did the man keep coming back—assuming that he did keep coming back, that the little episode in his life I’d witnessed wasn’t a one-time event?
I found myself imagining a life for the old man, something that explained his apparent loneliness, his quietly odd behavior. And the waitress, the possible-manager—were they just being kind to a borderline eccentric old man? Probably, yes—but since this was to be a mystery, I imagined darker, more complicated motives for them. A story began to take shape.
I called it “Table for None,” and it appeared in the May, 2008 Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Probably, every day, we all miss “hints of life” that could help us write stories. But once in a while, if we work to stay alert, we’ll catch one.
Write what you know? Sure. But also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience and observation any single human life supplies. If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into how it feels to be locked into a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and translate it into a situation you’ve never directly experienced. If you’ve observed closely enough, if you’ve analyzed deeply enough, if you’ve imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.
Award-winning author B.K. Stevens recently published an e-novella, One Shot, with Untreed Reads. This traditional whodunit, available at Amazon and other online vendors, takes a satirical look at issues ranging from gun control to reality shows. Almost forty of B.K.’s short mysteries have appeared in print, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She’s also published three nonfiction books.