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Jun 08

Question: Do you think that novelists can write about what they don’t know?

Answer: Nope. If you write what you don’t know it rings false, and that transfers directly to the page, and the reader will always pick up on it.

To correct some misconceptions:

  • How many submarines did Jules Verne ride in? None. But he was intimately familiar with the French submarine experimenters of the time – including the submarine “Le Plongeur” designed and built by Simon Bourgeois and Charles Brun, which (gee, coincidentally enough…) just happened to be around for seven years before 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was published, and which Verne actually saw when he was writing the story.
  • Fiction isn’t about “what you don’t know” at all. It’s about storytelling. Good storytellers write what they know. They always have, they always will.
  • Those who claim you should write what you don’t know – using the “crusading knights” and “dragons” and “space travel” and all the Hogwarts stuff doesn’t exist argument – clearly don’t understand storytelling. A story isn’t about the inner workings of hyperdrive, the quantum physics of a witch’s spell, the anatomy of a dragon or any of that ancillary ‘color.’ A good story is about heroes and villains and love and hate and human emotion. THAT is what good storytellers always write about; they write what they know.

The Monomyth – which is every story – doesn’t care whether you’re in space, in a castle, in a well, fighting demons, learning magic, flying through wormholes or how a city can float in clouds. It’s about people. It’s about relatable experiences. A good story is ALWAYS about relatable experiences. The line from the movie wasn’t “when the sperm found the egg in the fallopian tube and capacitation occurred and the egg was fertilized the DNA payload was delivered” because that wasn’t the story and the writer didn’t know human fertilization. The line Darth Vader said was “No, I am your father.” Why? Because THAT was the STORY.

If you don’t write what you know, you’ll never succeed as a writer.

About the author

Shawn E. Bell is an American author, screenwriter, publisher, naturalist, and media god currently living in Southern California.