Hello everyone. I am going to be thinking on the page at you and trying to come to some sort of conclusion, and I would like to invite comment from you as this will be more interesting and fun with reader participation. I want to talk about one of the things you hear a lot. Write what you know.
It is an easy thing to say, and it makes a lot of sense. How can you write about what you don’t know, after all? Well, research helps though some would argue that to write from a perspective you have to have experienced that perspective to write with fidelity. I think that is a discussion for another time. Today I will stick with write what you know. And I will make one admission here. I don’t know if this will work for everyone. I know it has worked for me. So, let us hope that you take something away from this. I am going to tell you two brief stories first.
I am playing in a game of Dungeons & Dragons at the moment. 5th Edition if it matters to you. My Games Master has been quite rigorous in creating a world, and encouraging us players into making deep characters. After my initial wizard character was basically vetoed as his purpose for being went contrary to a player’s wishes, I came up with a Dwarven Character called Hadrin. I gave him a clan, named his living relatives and gave his clan some history and their position in Dwarven politics. Then I wrote about an encounter Hadrin had with a powerful magical being that his Grandfather, the clan leader, had a deal with. The premise being that I wanted the Dwarven Clan to be pioneers in vehicle technology. Since regular industry was vetoed at character creation, I worked this encounter in so as justify magical technology. So, imagine Magic Powered flying machines for instance. The Clan supported itself by mundane means, mining and smelting like good little mountain Dwarves. The Games Master said he liked the idea of the magical technology. He liked the background and history of the clan, and their position in Dwarven society. He then said he found the fact they were mining mountain Dwarves boring. He wasn’t vetoing the idea, he wasn’t even vetoing the fact that they were miners in the mountains. He just wanted to encourage me to push the boundaries a little bit. So we got to talking about it. And eventually we came up with an idea of an offshore clan of Dwarves that live on a massive platform. The platform has drilling shafts and lifts to the seabad where the Dwarven farms are, whilst the platform itself served as a base for them to build their dirigibles. We took the idea of an industrious dwarf, and took him out of the mountains and made the idea work at sea. The end result was the Coraldeep clan of Dwarves. Dwarves that effectively live on an offshore rig, build airships and their warriors – the Tidebreakers – wear armour that is akin to deep dive apparatus. I made a Dwarf trained to fight underwater, to protect workers from sea monsters. Not your standard Dwarf.
My second story is about the books I am currently reading/rereading, the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky. They are a fantasy series set in a world where there are different kinden of human, each of which is basically an evolution along the lines of one form of insect. And, members of these kinden take on the characteristics of their parent insect. So, Ants have a hive mind, Mantis are really good killers and wasps have a sting and can fly. So, it is a fantasy world with city states at a technological level somewhere between middle ages and renaissance Europe. However, magic was once a major factor in the world in times referred to as the Days of Lore. Magic is more or less gone, except for a rare few kinden that still practice – Moths and Mosquitoes spring to mind – and the story is mostly about the politics of city states within the Lowlands, with the Wasp Empire invading. All sounds fairly fantasy so far? However, in Shadows of the Apt an industrial revolution has happened. The Days of Lore ceased as the slave races of the Moths and the Mosquitoes became Apt; technologically proficient. And from this they developed automotives, flying machines, crossbows and more. Magic is no longer the dominant factor in this fantasy, Industry is, and it has a similar effect on the politics of a fantasy book. Technology becomes the “Tool” employed to defend against the Wasps, where magic might have been used in another fantasy. The main wise character/mentor archetype in this book , Stenwold Maker, fills the roll that a wizard might in another fantasy. He is a professor of engineering. And a spymaster. And when you think about it, what is a spell but a process or procedure using components in a specific way to achieve a specific effect. Assembly of a device could fall into this category.
In both my stories there is something I was familiar with. An Industrious Dwarf. And a fantasy setting with a learned man aware of approaching doom. And in both cases it would be easy to write only what we know. About an industrious Dwarf who hails from the mines. About a Wizard that senses the approach of war. However, in both cases, something has been changed in the setting or circumstance without changing the fundamentals of the characters involved.
Hadrin Coraldeep is still an industrious dwarf. However, his clan work the sea rather than land.
Stenwold Maker is still knowledgeable, sees the approaching doom and can come up with solutions others cannot. But he builds things with his hands rather than casts spells.
In each case the standard trope that has been changed is changed into something that serves the same or similar purpose. However, this change in circumstance creates an entirely new idea around a particular story. So, let us think. What other things can be changed? Is this idea transferable?
Horror – Vampires survive by feeding on blood. Perhaps we create a creature that has a different survival mechanism that is equally terrifying? Maybe we change their weakness during the day…I know that was done in Twilight. I am sure there are other ways to change the nature of a dark creature that would add to the horror, rather than simply make them obvious.
Science Fiction – What can we change here? It is such a huge genre, to have only one entry is inadequate. What about a close encounter/first contact story? Where the protagonists meet aliens for the first time? What if the protagonists are not from Earth, and the aliens they encounter are?
Romance – This was done perfectly by Daphne Du Maurier in Rebecca, where the bulk of the book was about post marriage and post honeymoon period, whereas standard conventions have romance dealing with the courtship phase.
Crime – What if your main viewpoint character was the criminal? Perhaps there is a threat, perhaps of murder or theft. And maybe the main character is somehow involved in the security operation, but is actually the criminal. I feel this has probably been done, however I suspect if you do it well it would be masterful.
So, over to you. What things do you write about, and what could you do differently to set yourself apart?
2 thoughts on “Write what you know, but do it differently.”
Can I ask, does Hadrin have a hobby, and if so, would it marketable? Could he open Hadrin’s Hobbies?
But seriously, I think that you are spot on in that Sci-Fi is such a huge genre, though there have definitely been archetypes established in literature. Personally the lack of anything new in Sci Fi books has kept me away, I read the blurb and go “ah, so a BSG clone or Star Wars 2: Electric Boogaloo”. Admittedly established universes still appeal (SW/ST/40k), but increasingly I am drawn to the hybrids. Fictional Technology as Fantasy. Save for the underwater part, Hadrin reminds me greatly of certain clans of Warhammer Fantasy and especially Warcraft dwarves.
I don’t write often anymore, but when I do try to write something new, I try to think “this is fantasy, I can justify anything, so what do I think is cool” and just run with it. It’s led to a couple of very satisfying short stories, a screenplay and a synopsis for a much larger book.
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Hadrin’s Hobbies, I see what you did there. I recently read a very blunt blog post by a blogger I read from time to time and the basis was “Stop trying to be original”. I don’t entirely agree with that. I agree with the sentiment so far as it goes towards “Stop procrastinating” but I don’t think it is wrong for a writer to pursue originality, and since you actually are my target demographic (near enough 100% in my target demographic in fact) so it is gratifying that your opinion aligns with mine. I think the sentiment of the other blog is still useful in the sense that nearly everything has been done before. The trick to originality is doing something that has been done before, but doing it different enough to be cool but close enough to be recognisable. The recognisability isn’t strictly necessary, but on the other hand recognisability is a root to pathos/nostalgia and both are useful tools in the writer’s toolkit