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.



  1. Boats. Yeah, 90% of what I thought I knew was wrong, once one of my beta readers gently suggested I’d gotten confused. A little research and I realized what little I did know was almost exactly wrong.

  2. What about, ‘Write what your sources know about?’ E.g.: I’m ignorant about guns and small-forces battles – but I’ve got a son-in-law who’s ex-special forces, a gun collector, a regular at the shooting range. I pick his brains before writing a scene and pass it to him for corrections after writing. A daughter who went to fashion school and works in the business gives my characters makeovers far better than I could (my approach being “throw it on and hope it’s not stained or ripped yet”). A friend who plays in a symphony orchestra, another who’s a scuba diver…

    I’m all in favor of exploiting friends and relatives. And the best part is, they’re usually only too happy to expatiate on their specialty.

    1. This, a thousand times. Use your friends and contacts who do know about … stuff. Book research can only get one so far on a topic new to you.

  3. The only thing I’m sure about is my little niche of the world. And someone doing the same job in a different locale will likely have a completely different take on things. What do I know for certain? I’m wrong A LOT, and so is everyone else (especially my characters). But a compelling story can still be found in being wrong.

  4. Lately I’m been working very hard to find out how ignorant and useless I am in the field I trained in. I may yet be worth something. 🙂

    Fully understanding and clearly explaining are important to me. This isn’t because I succeed easily on the first try.

    None of us are really solitary. We all have to explain something we know to someone who does not, and convince them they understand correctly.

  5. Also, this is why genre is convenient.

    If you signal romance, and a reader knows what to expect with that genre, you don’t have to explain sexual reproduction, and the mores and insanities humans surround it with.

    “As you know Bob, humans are roughly bilaterally symmetric.” “No shit, Sherlock.”

    You have a budget for explanations in the story, essentially what your reader’s will tolerate because of your pacing. While skill at explanations will vastly increase that budget, you still only have so much to spend. Your foreshadowing, and other signals for reader expectations come out of that budget, but are not really things you use to customize the story. Weird setting, weird plot, and weird characters will be very costly in explanations.

    Genre conventions are effectively industrial standards for ‘this has been tested, borrow it and save the cost of redoing the calculations’. Like, say, the ASME boiler code helps save engineering cost and minimize explosions, genre conventions save explanatory cost and minimize reader bouncing.

    1. I’m suddenly feeling an urge to write a romance that contains the phrase, “As you know, Bob, humans are roughly bilaterally symmetric.”

      1. As luck would have it, I have a scene where I need to drop a rock on an intellectual poser for comic effect. But couldn’t get the joke to work, because the right combination of condescension and stupidity is a tough needle to thread without insulting a straw man.

        I’m totally stealing the line.

      2. I’m envisioning this as a Dresden Files backstory vignette, showing how Bob the Skull got sucked into his romance novel obsession.

      3. There’s always the star-crossed romance between the lovely Ambassador, a pseudo-cnidarian ftom Procyon III and the the equally gorgeous Finn aviatrix from the Terran League. Scandal broke when a jealous colleague revealed that Ambassador’s romance began when she was still (gasp) a brash young male. (With friends like that…)

        Of course, what caused the couple to flee, was when the sex tape went viral on Procyon’s deep web. The locals were both titillated and appalled, because, as you know, Bob…

      4. Ralph was radially, not bilaterally symmetrical. Which means the poor fellow could service five others of the opposite gender at the same time. Of course Ralph wasn’t exactly human; being highly evolved from an ancestor that resembled a sea urchin.

    2. I have a story. There are dragon riding dwarves. I do not have to explain, in great detail, how dragons work. (Though I’m working out some of the biology so I know the limitations of MY dragons vs. say Smaug… they’re smaller for one. MUCH smaller.) I have to do a little more explanation for Dwarves but mostly to get people into parameters. Are these Gimli dwarves? Or are these more like Trumpkin? Or are they like the little dwarves in the mountains that we might consider more gnomish modernly? But the fantasy conventions have already eliminated several possibilities for my readers just with the word ‘Dwarf’. I’d have to dig deep into the explanatory budget if I made them tall and slender (which is the price of the savings such things grant, if you play too hard against the expectations you have to be much more careful).

  6. Kind of ran into this in my second semester Physics class in college. Prof was a recent graduate and hadn’t learned to temper his presentation for newbies yet. He was using Calculus in his explanations that most of the class hadn’t had yet, or example.

    1. Question that. Second-year math students get caught up in the details. A good professor understands the context and gives students what they need to understand why this matters and why you’re doing this to solve it.

      (Passing over the time I banged my head on the blackboard while trying to explain transitive relations to a bunch of linguistics grad students. But really, humanities majors…)

        1. Sorry – meant it in response to Dave’s statement about math professors vs second year students

  7. You may also hit an audience that it sure it knows its factoids correctly. As a good example, consider the people who have fallen for Oman’s claim that it takes a lifetime to develop the muscles to become an effective combat archer. Some of these people will have noticed that developing the muscles to play defensive line in football is a bit faster, so you do not see a lot of 50-year-old defensive linemen, but do not suffer from cognitive dissonance.
    . We actually have period (e.g. 1550-1650) discussions of this, in comparison to teaching someone to use a matchlock under battlefield conditions. If you do it right, someone will complain.

    1. That’s where an author’s note explaining your reasoning and sources can really help.

    2. “Everyone knows that’s true!” Yeah, that can be a problem. There’s also the problem of what a character believes vs. what we know, or at least now know to be true.

    3. Considering I’ve seem someone actually teach adult non-shooters to hit a tossed aspirin with a bb gun in the course of a weekend; I have to discount any claims that it requires a lifetime to be able to teach any skill to the expert level.

  8. Professors teaching math are somewhat specialty dependent. There are a lot of courses that a math professor might be expected to give, and only some are going to be their specialty.

    Unless the teacher wants to expect every student to attend every class, and take excellent notes, they want to teach a course using a text book. Textbooks can potentially save /some/ cost in organization and prep. Furthermore, depending on discipline, they can be a handy reference later in one’s career.

    Someone whose specialty it is, who is fluent in the book’s notation, knows the book, has time to prep, has time to vary and is enthusiastic is vastly different from someone where those don’t apply. Someone who hasn’t touched the subject lately, and doesn’t have the resources to go beyond the textbook is going to have a vastly smaller effective audience.

  9. I’m reading a series now that has orbital mechanics backwards and they are always accelerating to a higher orbit or slowing down to go lower. I’ll grant “accelerating into [any] orbit” or “accelerating out of orbit” or even “slowing down is just negative acceleration” (if it were written that way, which it is not), but when it’s two things already in orbit meeting, just no.

    On the bright side, the author does realize that manual flying in space would be incredibly rare. They’re usually just pushing buttons.

  10. One of the things about doing research is that just because the author has done it doesn’t mean that it needs to be included into a work of fiction. One of my personal pet peeves is when a story comes to a screeching halt for a long exposition on some subject which is only tangentially (or not at all) related to the plot.

    You see this a lot in Historical Fiction and also in Hard SF. I can almost hear the author saying, “Damnit, I spent a week reading up on this shit, you’re going to sit there and listen to all the cool stuff I found out.”

      1. But, I _liked_ the whaling info in Moby Dick. Also, the history and philosophy discussions. But then, I’m a bit weird. 🙂

        1. I’m with you on this one.
          Melville geeking out is a wonderful thing.

          I’d much rather the author bring the story to a screeching halt for a quick lesson on something cool, than for me to put the book down and research it myself.
          I often never get back to the story.

      2. If your plane goes down in the ocean, and you have to use Melville’s whaling info to survive, you’ll be glad he info dumped.
        And when you’re telling this to reporters afterwards, I’ll be laughing with you, not at you!;-)

  11. I like this advice. I was getting a little bogged down explaining stuff in my current effort. No-one needs to know everything I’ve discovered about how to treat fly strike in a lamb, especially since it is gross in the extreme and that’s not the kind of book I’m trying to write.

    This advice also reminded me of my father, who was a true mathematical and scientific genius. He said that unless you can explain yourself to a six year old you don’t know what you are talking about. (I used to think six year olds must have been smarter once…) He also said that you don’t know what you really think until you write it down. My middle school students are living proof of that!

    1. I’m not sure about the six-year-old. Prerequisites do exist. It’s next to impossible to explain, for example, gene regulatory networks to someone who doesn’t know what a network is, doesn’t know how genes are regulated, is frankly kind of hazy on what genes are, etc. I suppose you could explain it all eventually, but not before your six-year-old had wandered off to go watch Ninja Turtles.

      1. Just going to add that in the heyday of my father explaining things the ninja turtles did not exist. He was an absolutely fascinating man but he did have a bit less competition then than he would now.

  12. This is also true in instructional design. People don’t want to learn a bunch of theory, never mind how interesting you think it is. They want the minimum they absolutely must have before they can play with the system, and then, when they need a specific functionality, learn the theory related to that function.

  13. Iran Jaya is the western half of New Guinea and 1970 would be just after Indonesia took it over from the Dutch. Did I mention my aunt and uncle served there as missionaries for 15 years starting in the late 70s and flew over with my boss’s boss and his wife the missionart nurse (who also works in the office with me for the last 15 years)? I’m one of those folks that would give your supposed author fits and I’m just second hand informed.

    The joys of hand cutting an air strip for MAF’s planes out of the jungle as your only transportation method besides foot paths over the mountains, the fact most of those tribes had no written language or any way to learn the language until you got there, just a third language that you hopefully can find some fluency in a tribe member until you pick up their language… Etc.

  14. It’s not the things you don’t know that are the problem. It’s the things you don’t know you don’t know.

    When I pointed out to a writer that no, your character in a winter scene is not going to be exclusively obsessed with piling blankets on TOP of the injured character, it was clear that it had never occurred to her that the ground was a problem. (There’s a reason why beds are much more widespread than chairs.)

  15. It’s septic. That’s the problem. Septic attracts petty, officious, nosy, stupid busybodies like a three day old road kill attracts crows. Cost my parents an extra nine months by dragging the permitting out over the summer so the build was done over the winter, and what would’ve been a three month build, with General Winter’s aid, turned into a year.

    Best luck to you.

  16. What bothers me, is when a writer fails to use simple internet searches to learn how something works.
    Silenced revolvers (excluding the Nagant), sugar in a gas tank, removing spark plugs to disable a engine (just cut the wires), military ranks (and navy ratings) are just some of my peeves and I as a grumpy old f**t have many.

    I really respect technical writers who have to give step by step instructions on how to do something. Be it scheduled maintenance or a repair / replacement. And to do it safely.
    For a maintenance example see, Maintenance Requirement Cards that the Navy uses.

    Don’t get me started on tech manual writers, for every 1 good one, it seems like there are 10 that are marginal to useless.

    I have read that when the amish write their instructions for cabinets / shelving kits, they let their young children put the cabinets together using the instructions and if the kids cannot do it, then the instructions are re-written until the kids can b put the kits together.

    About the Navy ranks and ratings, they are confusing to about anyone who has not served in the Navy.

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