One of the first things you’re told when you set out to be writer of any sort is to “write what you know.” I’ve taught this maxim myself in workshops any number of times not as a mindless cliché but because really: what else is there to do? Not everyone agrees, of course. New writers especially tend to say “But I don’t know anything!”
Of course you do. Have you ever been in love? Have you ever had parents who didn’t approve of the choices you made? Have you ever interacted with other people at all? Everything you’ve learned about people—or rainstorms, music, or car repair—from every experience you’ve had or shared with friends is part of what you know. If you listen to the way people speak, and hear the differences as well as similarities; if you notice the twist of your Aunt Mary’s hand when she makes a point, or the wheeze in your best friend’s Grandpa’s honky laugh; all those things are part of what you know. They all go into your writer’s kit, available whenever you need them.
I’ve also heard some people exclaim that it’s the worst advice they were ever given. They don’t want to be limited to what they know, they say! “I have an imagination! I can imagine more than I can ever experience!” Apparently they think they have been advised to write only about events in which they literally participated. Nonsense. They’ve invented a limit where none is intended.
My first novel, Molly September, is a pirate story, though it does have a touch of fantasy here and there. It takes place in 1672. Much of it takes place aboard the privateer, Jealous Mary. The rest is set in Port Royal, Jamaica, or on Tortuga. Right here, there’s a potential problem. It may be obvious that I’m not 350 years old, and thus have no direct experience of the 17th century. I’ve never been a pirate (other than being a Jimmy Buffet fan) or lived at sea. I’ve never even been to Jamaica! So how is that writing what I know?
Okay, I have to admit, my original inspiration for this novel was a handful of Errol Flynn movies (it began way before Johnny Depp put on the Jack Sparrow rig) and a National Geographic feature about Port Royal. I didn’t actually know a whole lot else about pirates and privateers besides what I knew from the movies. So I set out to learn. I read Capt. Johnson’s accounts, Esquemelling’s diary, and the Time-LifeSeafarers series. I looked at tourist vacation photos and antique maps. Studied hurricane reports, and the diagrams of the fore-and-aft rigging. Poured over every pirate website historical and fanciful that anyone ever put on the web, found more maps, more details. And even though I hadn’t memorized all that wonderful stuff, I had learned a lot about that world and filed away a lot more. It became—along with falling in love, defying parents, and learning to sing—part of what I know.
Well, fine, you cry. That’s all very well for historical fiction. At least Drake, Morgan, and Blackbeard actually existed. What’s that got to do with writing fantasy? What is there to study? There are no histories or reliable photos. Faery isn’t a real place. (“Isn’t it?” my Oberon would say. “I’m sure you know best.”)
In the last couple of years, my principal project has been a fantasy series calledThe Bells of Elfland. I’ve never met a fae, that I’m aware of, or sung my way through the veils that part our worlds, any more than I’ve sailed a pirate ship. How can I write about such things, complete with my own notions of the nature and location of Faery, and still be writing what I know?
The realm of Faery exists as an element of folklore almost everywhere on Earth. Are the faeries nature spirits, or the diminished gods of various regions driven underground by a new religion? Are they the fancies of an idle brain or the delusions of ignorant country folk teased up by Victorian folklorists? Maybe. Still, Tolkien and Shakespeare wrote about them. Were they deluded, ignorant, or mad? Or were writing what they knew?
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973) invented one of the most completely realized fantasy world ever imagined in print, but he didn’t do it from scratch. What fed his imagination was a long career studying the oldest forms of English literature, including the traditions of Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures with their tales of rings, heroes, dwarves, and elves. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) put Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream drawing on the legends and beliefs of the country people he grew up among, descended from the same Anglo-Saxon folk whose languages Tolkien would study centuries later. (He apparently made Titania up, or at least invented the name, as it doesn’t appear anywhere before then.) Fantasists with attachments to other parts of the world use the folklore of those cultures, too.
Writers read. We have to read. Not just fantasy and science fiction—everything. Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Mercedes Lackey, Patricia McKillip: all of your favorite fantasists are part of the great continuum of folk tale and fairy story. That’s where the histories and maps of Faery and every other fantasy world are. No reliable pictures? Spend time with Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Charles Vess, and the classic fairy illustrators like Arthur Rakham, Edmond Dulac, Warwick Goble. Each of them has a vision. Each of them has heard the bells of Elfland. They’re in the kit, too.
The more you go to the sources, and to the folklore of other cultures as well, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you’ll have in that kit that your imagination calls on, no matter the genre. And you’ll be writing what you know.