Writing What You Know, What You Don’t Know, and What You Know That Just Ain’t So
The current work in progress (66k words and counting) has taken me into very unfamiliar territory indeed – a few months ago I would have sworn black and blue that the only subgenre I was less likely to venture into than romance was military science fiction, and here I am writing it. Which has led to some musings on the whole question of writing what you know.
Now obviously, we genre writers don’t know what it’s like to pilot spaceships or cast spells or fight battles in powered armor, or any of the other staples of science fiction and fantasy. Some of us have experience in related fields – it’s no coincidence that a lot of the big selling mil-SF authors have military experience, or that their experience shows in their fiction. That’s one flavor of “what you know”.
I’m using a different flavor: since my characters are the descendants of a group of stranded Teutonic Knights (in space!), they’re organized along the lines of the Teutonic Knights. Their strategies have a lot to do with the balls-to-the-wall charge into battle and slaughter the pagan scum techniques their ancestors used, albeit updated for advanced technology and slaughtering slave-trading lizard scum instead of old-fashioned pagans.
The result, according to first readers who are getting snippets as I write, is different in a good way. This is the best outcome of writing what you don’t know in a genre or sub-genre you’re not intimately familiar with: you can potentially approach the familiar tropes with a fresh perspective (it helps that I’m not completely unfamiliar with mil-SF – just familiar enough to find some of the standard tropes a bit irritating *coff*NapoleonicWarsInSpace*coff*)
The worst that could happen is, well… The Handmaid’s Tale. Or certain science fiction or fantasy romances where the author had no idea how SF or fantasy actually worked and tried to reinvent that wheel, with hilariously awful results.
These are also salutary examples of What You Know that Just Ain’t So – particularly in the repeated insistence from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale that it isn’t science fiction because it lacks space squid or other tentacly things.
Clearly Ms Atwood Knows that SF is a genre of steel-jawed, blue-eyed heroes defending the Earth from the horrors of the tentacly monsters from outer space, and no doubt she’s seen any number of pulp covers along that theme. But SF is a lot more than just that. I mean, my evil monsters from outer space are reptiles, not tentacly things. So obviously they’re different (actually they’re not so much evil monsters as from a culture that is absolutely Not Compatible with ours, and isn’t likely to change any time soon. Or ever. But that’s another matter).
Silly asides aside, SF covers everything from grim dystopias through space operas with convolutions enough to put the average soap opera to shame to science fiction so hard if you hit it with a hammer your hammer would break – and absolutely everything imaginable in between, including space fantasy (and let’s face it, Star Wars is a space fantasy in space opera clothing) and things it’s next to impossible to classify. And what won’t fit in the very big SF tent sidles quietly over to the even bigger Fantasy tent where it orders some ale and pretends it always belonged there.
Honestly, I think of SF as a subset of fantasy anyway. It’s a subset that focuses on possible futures and (sometimes) scientific accuracy rather than on past or present and magical events, but it’s still fantasizing about things that don’t currently exist.
Anyway, it’s the things you know that ain’t so that will bite you. Every. Single. Time. And the only way to avoid getting it hilariously or horribly wrong is to keep an open mind and pay attention to the facts. Even if you don’t like them – or especially if you don’t like them. Because if you don’t like them, that can be a signal that they’re crashing into something you thought you knew and breaking your brain.
Welcome this and use it to learn. It’s an uncomfortable process, but it’s worth it.