Friday, April 29, 2011

Write What You Know

Write what you know.  That's advice that is often given out.  But when you're a science fiction, fantasy or horror author, sometimes that's not as easy as it sounds.  After all, I don't know much about time travel, mythical creatures or ghosts, and that's what I write about.  So how does one go about writing what they know if they write about something that doesn't exist in an exotic, far away place?

First, what you know is probably a little more far reaching than what you think.  It's not just limited to places you've been or things that you've done.  Many authors have never committed murder before, and yet it's written about all the time.  The act wasn't there, nor probably ever the desire, but the feelings were.  And the emotions.  Couple that with research that can be done with news, statistics, investigation results and trials on murders, and the author has a fairly believable platform to work from.

I've never time traveled.  Yet.  And I've not yet been to Cancun or Havana, but those elements are all essential to one of my science fiction tales.  So how do I go about writing about places I've never been to and things I've never done while still writing what I know?  Let's break it down.

One of the major locations in this particular story is Havana.  And while I've never been to Cuba, I have been to Cadiz, Spain.  I lived a few short minutes from it for four of the best years of my life.  That fact is relevant because when the Spaniards came to the new world and founded Havana, they built it to resemble what they had left behind in Cadiz, Seville and Granada.  In fact, the architecture is so alike that when the James Bond film Die Another Day was filmed, they shot many of the Cuba scenes in Cadiz because of this remarkable similarity.  So while I have not been to Havana, I can write scenes set there and draw from the sights, sounds, tastes, and feel of my experiences in Cadiz.

I haven't been to Cancun yet either, and that makes this setting a little more problematic.  Although it shares a similar past with Spain, it is quite a different sort of place.  I can't draw on Cadiz to write about Cancun.  But I can research.  I can pull pictures and descriptions from various sources to see what it's like there.  I can research the various resorts and talk to people who have been there.  I can do my homework.  But that still doesn't completely make up for the fact I haven't been there, so here's where I get a little creative.  The story is a science fiction piece featuring time travel, remember?  I simply set it in the future a good number of years, and coupled with the research I have done, the plausible differences between now and then make it a little more believable.  It may not be perfect, but I have enough of an alibi to make it work.

But that brings us to time travel and the future.  Setting scenes in the early part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is easier because you can research those eras.  There is plenty of documentation on what it was like then.  Many people remember what it was like in the years when some of my story is set.  But the future is different.  One only need watch a few old science fiction movies to chuckle at how vastly different today's world looked to them back then.

There are ways to avoid making your futuristic novel look like a clunky 1980's style cell phone in the cyber-speed world of today.  One of the ways is to set it further into the future than most authors elect to do.  Even with stories as recent as the Terminator series, we see a predicted future that was far different than reality, even when you take the fantastic storyline out of the equation.  Setting your story a hundred or more years into the future gives you a lot more time before that happens, and if you're so lucky, in a hundred years you'll probably be given some leeway for not predicting things very accurately.  It's a long time, after all.

But you still have that pesky problem of time travel, and all the fantastic science that inevitably comes with it.  Not only do you have to come up with an even remotely plausible way to conduct time travel, you also have to account for the leaps and bounds everywhere else science will have taken by that point.  We can't even accurately predict the NFL draft with endless footage on each player, let alone forecast where technology is going.

But there are trends.  We've seen things go from the concrete world to the virtual world, starting with the advent of radio and television.  We've seen the advances brought by the Internet, and where communication has gone since then.  Things are getting smaller, more portable, and more integrated into our daily lives.  We've seen media go from only watching it in a theater to portable VHS cassettes to DVDs to streaming online.  All you have to do is follow the pattern and make decisions based on the next logical step.

While you can't write what you know in some areas, at least not without a lot of research and guessing, you can with others.  You can with the little stuff.  This is probably the most important part of writing what you know, because you have so much to draw from, and the details make all the difference in the world.

Really use what you know to tie everything together.  Put the details of your life into your characters and plots.  Put experiences and individual quirks or personality traits in there.  You don't need to design a character after someone you know, but just giving them a trait or two from familiar sources is enough.  It doesn't have to be an exposé on your personal life, either.  My writing is peppered with my own personal experiences, and unless you really know me well, you won't see much of it.  You don't need to, and that's the point.  It's my character who experienced that fantastic trip to Cuba, not me.  It's my character who has a particular phobia, not someone I know.  And if I've done it right, that's all you'll see.

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