Wrong about what you know…
“Always write about what you know about”
That’s standard advice to writers, doled out like the wisdom of the ages to aspiring writers trying to write about the wilds of 1970 Irian Jaya, and the charm of the young nurse working there and the mechanics of the genetic illnesses in isolated tribal populations there… when the wilds of Poughkeepsie would be a bridge too far… and the nursing profession as alien as paleo-botany. As for genetics… they are almost sure it had something to do with genes. Or maybe jeans.
To the average mine of useless information (AKA professional writer) it shows, painfully.
Like most writing advice (actually, make that most advice) –it’s a crock… with a tiny gem of truth somewhere near the bottom.
You see… the crucial question is not ‘what do I know about?’ but ‘what does my audience know about?’ Now I chose the example with intent (I’m a sort of Chekov kinda guy, y’know. That shotgun described above the mantlepiece in scene 1 isn’t there unless it is used later.)
Basically a lot of people would be hard put to off-hand tell you much more than where Irian Jaya was, let alone much about it. The writer (especially if he or she has done some research) is not likely to be less informed than most of the audience. Oh sure, there are always people who have reason to know, or have an interest. But it’s a probability thing. Very few readers know much about the place that used to be called Irian Jaya. If you make it polar, with spruce trees and little chalets, they may possibly realize that you know very little.
On the other hand, a surprising number of your audience may well be nurses, or have family or friends that nurse. Screw up even slightly and a whole lot of your audience will know you’ve screwed up – to the point where unless you’ve at least done a little nursing yourself, you’d be wiser to choose a different profession for your character. Hence the other piece of much more valuable advice: don’t screw up on guns, horses, or boats. Too many readers are likely to know quite a lot about them.
But when it comes down to the science and mechanics of genetic disease… you’re into a whole new ball-park. If you are an expert… you probably shouldn’t write about it. Because, there’s a lot to understanding the subject, and translating that into simple clear story that someone who knows barely anything about genetics (most of us) can follow is a special skill. A fool can write a simple story about simple things well. Most people can write complex things they understand well (or badly) in a complex fashion. Some critics confuse this sort of turgidity (‘I didn’t understand a word of it. I had to read every sentence four times. It must be brilliant’) with genius and writing talent. Real genius, however, is the individual who can explain the flaws in Newtonian Gravitational theory and get Joe Ordinary to grasp it.
Trust me on this: most of us don’t ‘translate’ down well. I keep having my own nose rubbed in this unpalatable fact. And yes, I am aware of it and work hard at it – but I still fail pretty dismally at times. Yes, actually I have been trying to explain fecal pathogens and the coliform Index and the probability of disease transmission to our Council’s bureaucrat. I think I accidentally wandered into one of the inner circles of my personal hell. This is someone that thinks that transmission in a density of 1 00 000 people per square mile with septic tanks is LESS likely than in 0.2 people per square mile with an open pit toilet. Yes. Really. And this is the person taking decisions about sanitation… Is this just me feeling I’ve wandered into the dung-pits of Glyve?
Anyway: I’ve thought I explained quite well before. It always comes back to: the more you know, compared to person to whom you’re trying to explain, the harder it is. A Math Prof probably does a terrible job of explaining math to fifth graders. But a good second-year student pitches things at the right level to make sense to a first-year.
Obviously a little research comfortably gets you into ‘I know a little more than Joe Average, but not too much’. The danger of course in this is that a little research can still make you into an idiot for someone who specializes in a subject. Fortunately these sort of people are usually very pleased anyone is interested in their subject, and are usually kind enough to read at least that section and tell if you’ve made a cod’s head of it, for little more than thanks in your acknowledgements.
But every now and again, you DO know a lot more than most of your readers. How do you ‘translate down?’
Yeah, I know. Badly.
And those who can’t do, try to teach.
Seriously, I must have some success at it, because I’ve written about some complex things, and had critics label it as ‘an airplane read’. I put that at ‘moderate success’, because I’ve also had one critic complain about the science in SLOWTRAIN – because I failed to get through to him that once you’re outside a spinning sphere, the walkways have to ‘hang’, you fall out or up or away, and climb down or in or closer. However, the point was none of them found it ‘hard’ to read, even if my explanation wasn’t good enough for their understanding.
And therein lies the first of my maxims. It doesn’t matter if every reader gets it – as long as the story keeps them reading. If you can get them to get it without even realizing… you’re a genius. Well done.
And to do that you need the second maxim: explanation is always brief, and does not slow the pace of the story.
If it’s not going slow the pace, and be brief… maxim three, it needs be in simple, jargon free language. Short clear sentences, and not all the wonderful detail you’ve researched… just the good bits.
Maxim four: use the eyes and viewpoint of a character who you shape to not understand the complex thing in detail. Their coming to understand is how you explain to those who don’t know, without peeving those who do.
Finally ignorance can’t be bliss or bureaucrats would all be delirious with happiness. But a little well conducted research is really all you need to write on a subject. You only need to be a few steps ahead of your audience to explain things well.
Oh, and speaking from thinking I knew a lot about a subject… I’ve been wrong about that most of the time too. There is a lot to know.