‘Write about what you know about,’ they said.
Well, that about wraps it up for science fiction, especially alien encounters. I should have stuck with fantasy: after all, I was a fisheries scientist. Or maybe horror… oh. Wait. Dealing with the publishing industry came after writing, not before.
Like most general and free advice it is worth about what you pay for it… and what you can get out of it. Yeah – Lemons: lemonade stuff. Look, I never set out to live a sort of Hemingway-type life of doing bizarre, unusual and dangerous things. They’re like the dog or cat that follows me home. I’m too much of sucker not to keep them, and too dim-witted to realize the cute black and white stripy one is actually a skunk. I have done a number of things which are just too implausible for fiction. (I wasn’t there, I wasn’t even in the country, and besides I was led astray by evil companions. Anyway, the statute of limitations on netting goldfish with tennis court net from the pond outside a prominent government building are long past I hope. Not that I know anyone who would do something quite that daft. Goldfish are terrible eating anyway.) So… I should be able to write about some of that, yes?
And yes. As much as the next bloke, anyway. Neither of us met any aliens. (OK, so there’s the girl who was abducted by them and they impregnated her… but it ain’t me. Not even with a tentacle-suit) And no, politicians and New York City publishers don’t count. The former would only prove there is no intelligent life out there, and the latter are too alien for human comprehension.
We just make this stuff up as we go along. The important part is to get readers to believe it plausible (or at least entertaining enough) to suspend disbelief and enter your story. And this is where the next bloke rather than me, may have a big advantage on me. You see, I’ve actually grabbed a crocodile. He’s seen it in movies and on TV (which I haven’t). I’m frightened spitless of the things, but the honest truth was it was much less of a drama than taking the trash out.
It was in one of our ponds, eating the fish and when we drained the dam, there it was. The local black guys I was working with ran off, dropping the net – and there was me, in the dam (because I always took the worst job, the deep end, because that’s sort of the only way I know to get people to do stuff.). With it between me and the only easy way out – and it had to get taken away before it ate our livelihood. It wasn’t large – about 4 foot long, and I did know that their closing bite was incredibly strong, but that the opening jaw muscles weren’t. So I pushed a bucket down hard on the jaw, stood on it, on the base of the tail, and grabbed it by the base of the tail and then the end of the jaws, and with remarkable speed dropped it into the plastic 44 gallon drum we had for the fish, and slapped the lid on. We released it back into the river, and found and mended the hole it got in through.
The entire drama took less time than it took to write and was – from the observer’s point of view (not perhaps my underwear’s point of view) about as exciting as me grabbing a fish and dropping it in the barrel. Maybe even less exciting, because the big catfish I was dealing with were slimy and often the whole thing ended up as a muddy episode of fish wrestling. I got more than a few tail-slaps to the head on occasion, much to everyone’s amusement. This was quick and easy by comparison.
Whether it was the right way to do it or not, or even a sensible thing to do… I didn’t have time to think about. Thank heavens, neither did the crocodile. And dear heaven, I did not angst in the middle of it (for several pages) about my life, my mother, my relationships or the psychological effects of racial injustice or toxic masculinity.
And I’m damn sure the other bloke, who was writing from what he knew about it from watching it on TV would produce a far more gripping event, and one which his readers – except the rare fellow who actually has done this, would believe more easily.
It helps if you know something, or research it, especially if it is common knowledge (even if that is wrong). But be aware that going against common knowledge takes a lot of careful explanation and build.
But write anything you please, or rather (if you wish to sell books) that you think will please others to read.