Write what you know – but what if you don’t know Jack?
There is an old writer’s adage that states “Write What You Know.” But if this were strictly true, no one could write a story about Jack, let alone Martian invaders, underwater sub-marine ships, dinosaur-infested lost worlds, or galaxy-spanning lensmen? Do you know any Martians? Did even Heinlein, who traveled extensively, know any Martians? A cloud of doubt occludes our hawk-eyed sight.
Which is to say, what we know most of all is our own life experiences, and who wants to read about that? The Life of Me is gripping story only to the extent that Me has led a distressingly interesting one. Life is hardly ever well plotted. It’s all full of coincidences and dei ex machinis and one damn thing after another, and in the end “suddenly we are run over by a bus.” Life is bad art.
Yet... Ars imitatur vita. Note that imitor is a deponent verb: active in matter but passive in form; and vita, life, remains in the nominative case. Those old Romans were smarter than we think. Life is the mover, and art the moved. (It also means that we should be cautious about regarding Nature as mechanical. Machines may imitate nature; but nature is under no more obligation to imitate art[ifact] than life is to imitate a novel.
But, we digress.)
Now some writers have led interesting lives. Hemingway could find enough to populate several quasi-autobiographical tales, and Dickens could re-label his own childhood and call it David Copperfield. Louis L’Amour, best known for his westerns, met cowboys and outlaws like Bill Tilghman, Emmett Dalton, Tom Threepersons, and Elfagio Baca. He had skinned cattle in west Texas, baled hay in the Pecos valley, worked in the mines of Arizona, California, and Nevada, and in the saw mills and lumber yards of Oregon and Washington. He worked as a professional boxer and trained Golden Gloves teams. He hoboed across the country, hopping freight trains and sleeping in hobo jungles, and circled the globe as a merchant seaman.
Write what you know. But L’Amour didn’t write his life. He used his life to write his fiction – not just westerns, but his sea stories, his literary fiction, and so forth. He could describe matters with great authority because he had been there. The same goes other authors. Hemingway had been in the Spanish Civil War. Dunning has worked the race tracks and antiquarian book trade.
But Mike (I hear you say), I have done nothing of the sort. I’m just a poor little SF weenie. I’ve never raised a dragon, let alone landed on Mars. I don’t know Jack.
Ready to give up?
OK. Try this. Isaac Asimov had virtually no life experience. He was a nerd from Brooklyn, a claustrophile terrified of flying. But I hear he did okay as a writer.
What you know need not be personal experience. Oh, it’s better if it is. You can add deeper color and understanding. But you could also know what other people have told you, you could know what you have read in books. You could even know what you have surfed on the Internet, though I would be a tad careful with that one. While researching modal music for Eifelheim I came across a website that told me the Catholic Church had declared the Fourth Mode satanic because it contains an unstable tritone. As I read this my mood music was playing the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos chanting the medieval responsorial Media vita in morte sumus, which was in (you guessed it) the fourth mode.
As a child I once asked my father about his experiences on Iwo Jima and he told my brother and me a suspenseful tale of a Japanese soldier who charged him, and he shot the guy with a 45, but with his dying lunge the enemy stabbed him in the leg with a bayonet. “Then what happened, daddy?” we asked breathlessly. “I died,” he answered. So convincing had been his narrative that we burst into tears. That, my friends, is suspension of disbelief!
How did he do it? How did he convince two young boys that he had been killed when he was sitting right there in freaking front of them. First of all, we were really gullible. But most of all, he could describe the setting, the anxiety, the suspense, even the look of the Japanese bayonet with genuine authority.
But Steven Crane had never ‘seen the elephant’ when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage. So what did he do? He extended his everyday experience with human nature into the theater of war. Consider situations where you may have been in danger or have taken risks. Perhaps an accident or near accident that sent a shock of adrenaline through you. Perhaps you have bonded closely with friends by hazarding an adventure – or even a sporting contest – together. I was once accosted by a street gang in Philadelphia and solicited for a contribution to their benevolent fund. Holy crap. How was I going to get out of this…? These are not the same thing as combat; but they are like certain aspects of it. All of these emotions can be transferred to other circumstances.
The same sort of transference by analogy can be used in other circumstances. Juliette Wade is a linguist who uses language in her SF stories. One day, she and her husband went into a major department store in the Ginza and asked one of the shop helpers – in Japanese – to show them a pair of shoes. The shop helper crossed her forearms in front of her and said, ‘No Engurishu!’ When Juliette explained that they were in fact speaking Japanese, the helper replied in the same way: ‘No Engurishu!’ Finally, a manager cleared matters up. The shop helper had it so fixed in her mind that no one but a native could speak Japanese that she quite literally could not hear it being spoken. Juliette used this experience for her short story "Let the Word Take Me," in which aliens literally do not recognize that humans are speaking their language.
Remember, fictio is Latin – there’s those dang Romans again – and it means “the act of shaping or fashioning.” Life itself is simply the raw material. It must be artfully shaped. Fictio does not mean false. The finest thing to say about a fiction is that it is true to life. (That’s different from the truth of natural science, which must be true to fact.)
Another tactic, mystery-writer John Dunning used to say, is to “describe the thumb so well that the reader thinks he has seen the entire hand.” Two masters of this technique are Rudyard Kipling and Robert Heinlein, who always manage to sound like they know what they’re talking about. Even if they don’t. Perhaps, especially if they don’t. Read them for their craft, for their mastery and economy of description. Heinlein’s “The door dilated” is legendary. In Kim, Kipling describes Lurgan Sahib as a “healer of sick pearls” so convincingly that readers never stop to wonder what the heck that even means:
'Oh, they are quite well, those stones. It will not hurt them to take the sun. Besides, they are cheap. But with sick stones it is very different.' He piled Kim's plate anew. 'There is no one but me can doctor a sick pearl and re-blue turquoises. I grant you opals - any fool can cure an opal - but for a sick pearl there is only me. Suppose I were to die! Then there would be no one ... Oh no! You cannot do anything with jewels. It will be quite enough if you understand a little about the Turquoise - some day.'
I have not the faintest doubt that Kipling knew more about curing sick pearls than I do. He certainly sounds like he does. It’s the offhand dismissive reference to opals that does it.
How many here are familiar with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series?
Here’s Kipling again in “The Sending of Dana Da”. Listen carefully and see if you recognize its possible progeny:
Now a Sending is a horrible arrangement, first invented, they say, in Iceland. It is a Thing sent by a wizard, and may take any form, but, most generally, wanders about the land in the shape of a little purple cloud till it finds the Sendee, and him it kills by changing into the form of a horse, or a cat, or a man without a face.
No one, Edward Said once commented, had mastered the use of the authoritative capital like Kipling had. A Sending. A Thing. The Sendee. It imparts an importance to the word. And now we all do it; though we do not all send shapeless shadows or faceless men out to kill our enemies. Of course, Dana Da in this case sent little white fluffy kittens. Later, L. Sprague deCamp would write “A Sending of Serpents,” a more malign effort entirely.
But Mike (I hear you say), is it all about faking it?
Well, yes and no. Fictio is, literally, faking it. But you can’t pretend to knowledge you don’t have. Sam Clemens once said, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” So the adage might as well be “Don’t write what you don’t know.” It’s the bit that you never checked because you never suspected that it might be wrong.
I read a story once in which a time traveler attempted to visit Galileo during his house arrest, and encountered armed guards at the villa and the need to get permission from nasty old Cardinal Bellarmine. In fact, there were no guards and permission to visit was easily granted, once the kabuki was played out. More to the point, Bellarmine was long dead by that time.
Most readers might not notice. They might not notice if Jack gets on the BMT and takes the A train to Times Square. But it’s possible to blow at least some readers out of their suspension of disbelief by knowing stuff that ain’t so.
If you only need to get your character from point A to point B, it does no harm to report merely,
“Jack went up the road to the printing plant…”
But if you want to sound a bit more authoritative, you could say,
“The driver was waiting when Jack left the Chola Sheraton and drove him north up Beach Road to the ITC compound, where the printing plant was located.”
Naming a place and a road and noting that manufacturing plants are inside walled compounds makes the passage more real. If story purpose demands greater realism in this scene, you might even write:
“The driver was perched cross-legged on the car’s fender when Jack left the Chola Sheraton. He was darker than the hotel’s staff and wore a broad black caste mark across his forehead. The resplendently turbaned doorman insisted politely but firmly on carrying Jack’s computer bag and helping him into the car. An act of aggressive servility. The doorman affected not to notice the driver or the ten-rupee tip that Jack slipped to him. When everything was ready, the driver put the car into gear, and ventured into the libertarian traffic of Old Mylapore that only the caste of drivers could hope to master.” Etc.
IOW, if you want to write a police procedural, you better know police procedures. If you want to set your story amidst a nomad horde attacking a settled society, you ought to know something of the Mongols, Turks, or others who have done so, and why the Qalmuqs did not fare so well as their predecessors. To write The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, mystery writer Lawrence Block once painted an imitation Mondrian on his own, figuring he’d never be able to own an original, “and how hard could it be?” Well, he found out. And that helped him describe those scenes.
But Mike (I hear you say), enough of these generalities! How does all this apply to our esteemed guest of honor? Part of the pleasure of guests of honor is finding out some of the inside skinny on how they ply their craft.
Well, in Eifelheim I set an alien encounter in the 14th cent. Schwartzwald. In the original novella that was all offstage and could be handled without too much detail. But as the main setting in the novel, I actually had to learn about the fourteenth century and the Black Forest. The aliens you can make up. Sorta.
I’ve been in Freiburg-im-Breisgau and walked its streets, kept maps and pictures. I found a region on the Feldberg where there are no villages and plopped Oberhochwald smack in its middle. I read the history of the region – the Barons’ War, the Armleder, the siege of Burg Falkenstein by the Freiburger guild militias, the interests of Haus Hapsburg in the Breisgau, and so on. I studied – and this may have been the most difficult part – the natural philosophy of the era. I read Edward Grant and David Lindberg on medieval science, Frederick Copelstone’s History of Philosophy. Some wags have remarked that Eifelheim is about the meeting of two cultures: one pretty much like ourselves and the other utterly alien; and it is the medievals who are the aliens. I must have done okay on that score, since I’ve gotten complimentary emails from actual medievalists and have been called out on only one error of setting.
The Firestar series was set in the near future – technically, portions are already in the past – so I had to stick, at least initially to Known Science. For that a coincidental consulting engagement at NASA-Goddard on Wallops Island proved helpful. I was given literature on orbital mechanics and on space resources that proved invaluable. The late Eleanor “Glo” Helin provided me with the parameters of an actual NEO and projected mission that I used in Rogue Star. The various divisions of Van Huyten Industries were based on clients I had visited and the company politics I had observed.
The Wreck of “The River of Stars” was based on Myers-Briggs personality scales, introduced to me by a colleague named Mariesa – who was one-third of the behavioral model for Mariesa van Huyten.
The Spiral Arm series, being millennia in a future, is less tied to Things that Must be Known, although I did have a list of speculative science which I reference in the appendices to In the Lion’s Mouth and On the Razor’s Edge. However, human nature does not change and a lot of the texture of that series comes from observations of actual people and places. For example, the Terran Corner of Jehovah and the Starport Sarai are neighborhoods in Chennai.
Currently, I am working on a three-part novel, the first part of which is set in Milwaukee 1965-67. I was not in Milwaukee until 1969-1971, but my wife was there. So I am using some of her experiences, esp. in the civil rights marches, and am retrofitting the commune I lived in to a slightly earlier time frame. It is astonishing what an alien world 1965 was, and I was there. No touch tone phones, no Miranda warning, no term for “male chauvinist.” No one had even hand calculators. Teddy Kennedy was protested at Madison because he supported the Vietnam War. Planned Parenthood opposed abortion and the distribution of birth control to unmarried women. We had not yet reached the moon, let alone abandoned it.
So Mike (I hear you say) did you lead as adventurous a life as Louis L’Amour or L. Sprague deCamp?
Fortunately, no. I can call artillery fire down on my coordinates, a useful skill I learned in ROTC. I worked as a printer’s devil and as a pressman on flatbed and upright Miehles, a skill exercised by Jacinta Rosario in Lodestar. For a brief time I worked in an Arsenal trying to model the bolt of the M-16, which had a nasty habit of jamming. Later, I got into quality assurance and learned the art of statistics and of problem-solving.
For a while I was a filthy politician and rose from precinct committeeman to district captain to house district leader. I was asked to run for the state senate, but declined. I actually got familiar with a US Senator, a Congressman, and a Governor. So if I ever need some inside-politics color – say in Firestar – I have some in my kit.
As a quality management consultant, I traveled all around the country and sundry points overseas, meeting in the process a wide variety of people in a wide variety of regional cultures. I’ve been to LaPeer Michigan (Heart of the Southern Thumb!) and Huntsville AL, to Portland (both of them), Seattle, New Orleans, Texarkana, and so on and so forth across all Nine Nations of North America. I’ve been to Chennai, Johannesburg, Paris, Vienna, Panama City, and all up and down the Rhineland. In Jo-burg I learned it was a point of etiquette to tip the armed guard outside the restaurant, though I might hesitate to say “Thank you, boy” as our host did. In Panama I learned there were such folks as Chinese-Panamanians. A devout Hindu friend in Chennai explained how to ask the gods for a favor. To get something, he told me, you must give up something. He had given up single malt whiskey and beef. Did he get what he wanted? I don’t know; but the next month he was off the vegetarian diet and drinking Scotch.
Normal speech rhythms in Tamil sound like a growing argument. Each sentence rises in pitch and, as they tend to talk over one another, each sentence becomes louder. I used that linguistic tic several times in the Spiral Arm series.
Clients I’ve worked with include glass shops, insurance companies, auto assembly plants, bakeries, chemical and pharmaceutical plants, parts warehouses, steel mills, the US Postal Service, the Panama Canal Commission, the US Army, and the UN Safeguards Department. All this provided a wealth of vicarious experiences that I have used in one way or another in my stories. I can’t claim to be a satellite image interpreter, but I’ve watched it done. (Some pictures were brought into class during break and poured over by some of the students.) I can’t pilot a freighter through the Canal, but I have worked the simulator and have some notion of what the pilot must do.
So. Stay awake and pay attention to “atoms of fact and attitude.” Observe people and how they react to situations, especially those reactions that reveal a personality trait. Here’s a man in a diner, carefully counting out coins from a squeezee change-purse to pay his bill. Perhaps he’s stingy. But perhaps he’s broke. Or perhaps he’s a coin collector and is looking for a wheat penny.
It’s hard enough to capture the texture of contemporary society, let alone the medieval or the far future. You will never entirely succeed, but if you describe the thumb well enough, you can create the illusion of success. A quick example: in Eifelheim, the alien Krenken were described as comprising three or four distinct ethnic groups. This added extra texture to their characters.
Be alert for the unexpected, the set-breaking observation. The sometime beef-eating Hindu. The Ethiopian cab driver in Boston who just adored the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The sky-gazing doormen in Manhattan I overheard discussing clouds formations in meteorological terms. The Igbo woman who planned to study classical music and composition in Vienna. The Panamanian who complained about Mexican and Russian immigrants taking jobs away from real Panamanians. The first native Egyptian I ever met had a Greek name. Most recently, I met one named Oswyry. Who names their kids after Osiris these days? No one ever runs entirely true to type.
A Telugu friend said of the British in India, “We are glad the British left; but we are also glad they came.” An Iraqi Shi’ite in Vienna told me, “We don’t want the Americans to stay too long; but we don’t want them to leave too soon.” Attitudes like these complexify a character. It’s not all one or the other.
I have been warehousing stories told me by UN nuclear inspectors, Jordanian royal guards, and so on. My father’s cousin wrote an autobiographical account of his experience as a CAC Marine in a Vietnamese village. A waitress in a local diner was once involved in a bank robbery. A supervisor in a glass plant once told me a harrowing tale about his sister-in-law, a Hong Kong entrepreneur doing business in South China. Another client told me about “the first time” he had encountered a dead body on the street, during the Red Terror in his native Ethiopia. “But after a while,” he said, “you get used to it.” In Chennai, I saw a family of five riding on a motorcycle. (I also saw six lanes of traffic on a three lane road. One time, a flat-bed trailer from the Port of Chennai was heading directly toward the car I was in. Across the brow of the truck’s cab, where the name of the company is shown, it read – in English – “Jesus is Lord.” I thought I would get to personally verify the sentiment, but somehow my driver threaded the needle and we got through.) All of this is grist for the mill. Facts for the fictio.
One time, my father had been detailed to clear the northern beaches on Iwo Jima. He and his partner were scratching through the sand and uncovered… a 500-lb aerial bomb, rigged by the Japanese as a land mine. He looked at his buddy and his buddy looked at him. After a long silence, one of them said, “What the hell. If it blows, we’ll never know it.”
Whether writing a story or defusing an aerial bomb, it’s best to know what you’re doing. Look around you – and listen around you – and you’ll discover that “What You Know” is more extensive than you may think. You just have to know how to shape it and use it. And that is fictio.
So let's throw this open to questions. (You can use the comment feature to do this)