Once upon a time, a young woman was so in love with books that she decided she wanted to become a writer so she, too, could create loveable stories. She read everything she could about writing. Then, one day, she found herself in a book store where she bumped into an old man among the shelves. Turning to apologize, she discovered it was a venerable, much-loved author.
As soon as she could find her voice to speak, she said, "Oh, sir! I know you are very busy, and so I would just like to ask you one small question: what is the best piece of advice you have for a beginning writer?"
The old man smiled and said, "Certainly, young lady. In fact, I will write it down for you." He took out a small slip of paper and a pen and jotted something down. Then he handed the paper to her.
She thanked him profusely and moved out of his way so he could go about his business. Then she looked at the little paper in her hand. She frowned.
"Write what you know."
Well she was very disappointed. In fact, it made her quite angry. What if she didn't want to write about the things she knew? What a stupid piece of advice. She had expected better from the very successful, venerable old author.
No, she decided, I will write about something I can't know about. I'll write about space, she thought. And she crumpled up the paper and tossed it away.
It became an obsession. She found when she sat down to describe the stars that she didn't really know how to describe them. So she purchased a telescope. Some stars appeared differently than others, and so she went to the library to find out why. She began to follow NASA's projects, read articles and interviews about astronauts. Looked at spaceship specifications. Watched televised rocket launches.
Soon she could write all about space and space exploration. But space was a wild frontier; there was so much of it that hadn't been explored. She thought, aha! This is something no one can know anything about. She took her research about possible other planets and began to imagine what they were like, what plant and animal species might be like on them, whether there could be intelligent life and how that might play out in a world isolated from her own.
She created characters and spent hours thinking about them, thinking about what their languages and cultures might be like, thinking about what their emotions might be. She turned to philosophy to see if she could make them more or less human like, developed moral and value systems for them. She put much care into making them as real to herself as possible—keeping them consistent, making them believable.
And she wrote. She wrote and she wrote. Her work was good at first, but the more she wrote about these things she'd been learning and developing, the better and stronger her work became. She was invited to conferences of all kinds, from academic summits to entertainment conventions. Sometimes she was asked to speak on panels. She used these opportunities to talk to other people in the fields, to see what they were doing and what they thought.
One day, she was sitting in a coffeehouse when a shadow fell over her table. When she looked up, she saw it was the venerable old author she'd run into all those years ago in the book store. He was even older now, and more venerable, and he was smiling at her. "May I sit down?"
"Yes, of course," she said, a tinge of her old awe coming back to her.
"I was wondering how my old advice has served you in your work," he said.
"Oh," she said. For a moment, she wasn't sure she should answer. But it is usually best to be honest. "I didn't find it very helpful at all, actually."
He seemed surprised. "No? But it is the best advice any writer could give or receive."
"I don't think it is. You told me that I should only write about the things I experienced in my life. But you know, I wanted to write about other things."
He raised his eyebrows and reached into his coat. From an inner pocket, he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. He straightened it out on the table and then turned it toward her so she could see the writing on it. "I would love for you to show me where I said that," he said, "so I can correct myself."
But the rumpled message only said "Write what you know."
She frowned. "But I wanted to write about things I didn't know about."
"Did you do it?"
"Yes. I wrote about space. I've never been to space."
He began asking her questions. What's the difference between a gaseous giant and a white dwarf? What kind of planet is Earth? How does the distance between a planet and a star affect the conditions on the planet?
She answered all of them.
"It seems you know a lot about space," he said.
She frowned. "Well, there are some things that people can't know about. Like aliens."
She nodded. "I had to make things up."
"I've read several of your books," he said. "I particularly like your Falengal race."
She smiled and felt very pleased.
"They had an interesting culture dynamic," he said.
"They were based on an African society," she said. "Just wait until you read my next book. There is another faction that comes into play, another tribe, and it is based on a South American one. The society is a paternal rather than maternal one, which is a break with earth-based traditions." She began to describe this new people in detail.
The venerable old writer sat listening and nodding, his hands folded on the tabletop. After a while, he said, "It seems you know a lot about these invented people of yours."
She went quiet.
"It seems you've been following my advice all along, you just didn't realize," he said.
He continued. "As a writer, you know now there are many different ways to say something, just as there are many different ways to know something." He took up his little paper and ripped it into strips so that there was a word on each strip, then he rearranged them on the table. Now the advice said, "Know what you write."
"To be honest," he said, "it's all the same. But I think you can recognize the point now."
She didn't answer.
"I am glad you have become a very good writer in your own right," he said as he rose. He smiled at her and tipped his hat and went on his way.
Over the years, she met many different other kinds of writers. Sometimes they came to her for advice.
Some wanted to know why their characters were so flat. She could tell them, "It is because you have not gotten to know these characters at all, they are strangers just moving your plot along. Characters are people, not tools. Find out more about them. Ask them questions, explore their pasts, give them strengths and flaws, pay attention to how they do even mundane things."
Some wanted to know why their characters seemed to move in an endless, indefinable plane. And she would tell them, "You know very little about the world you are trying to write about. If you want to write about 12th-century England, you must learn about 12th-century England before you can expect to recreate it. What were the sights, the smells? What were common occupations, what did people do in their free time? What did the landscape look like, what crops did people plant, what foods were there to eat? And people didn't talk like you and I do now; you'll have to look at texts that survive from the period."
Some wanted to know why their readers wouldn't believe the things they were trying to write. "If you knew more about what you were trying to do," she'd tell them, "you could be consistent about it and offer details that would let your readers follow you and believe you. Yes, you can shoot a man out of a cannon, but I don't know a thing about how. So you're going to have to find out about circuses, read some biographies of famous daredevils, watch some documentaries. Then your readers will have an easier time suspending their disbelief."
One day she was in a book store and a young man bumped into her. As he turned to apologize, he realized who she was.
"Oh, I just love all your books!" he said. "I want to be a writer just like you someday."
She smiled. And when he asked her for the best piece of advice she could give to someone who wanted to become a writer, she said, "I'll even write it down for you."
She handed him a slip of paper. "Write what you know," it said.
He frowned. "Well, what if I want to write about something I don't know? What if I want to write about vampires and vampire hunters and witchcraft?"
"There's all sorts of ways to learn about those things. And you can write about anything in the universe that you want to write about; it's just better if you know what you're doing before you sit down to write," she said. "And if you don't know it, learn it. Then you'll know it, and it will show in your writings."