“Write what you know” is both the best and worst advice that is ever given to aspiring writers. It has spawned a million “I was staring at a blank screen” stories, and before that, “The blank page in the typewriter was glaring back at me,” stories and, for all I know, “The wax tablet was mocking me with its uncarved surface” stories littering some Sumerian transom.
The thing that the advice givers tend to leave out is that they are not telling you that you can only write about settings and experiences in which you have personally participated. Otherwise, I would really worry about, say, George R.R. Martin’s home life. Well, I do worry about that a little.
In the normal course of my writing, I take the “what you know” maxim to mean that I can take my own experiences and reactions and then try to figure out how I would react in a parallel (but generally rather more charged) emotional atmosphere. It also means that I need to do enough research to be true to the real-world environments–generally a lot of reading and interviews–rather than signing up for six months as a space pirate (which, by the way, I would definitely do if I could only pass the physical).
The story I wrote for Transcendent was a little bit different in that it turns out I did have direct relevant experience. My father suffered from ALS, and towards the end could only communicate by hitting a button with a single toe. Despite this, he never gave up, never lost his sense of humor–and would never abbreviate, no matter how maddening it was to those of us waiting to know what he was typing!
Fortunately, he was never in a long-term medical facility, but my mother’s cousin was in several, and I can tell you that you don’t really need to add much to recognize a horror movie set when you see one.
Add all that to my own rather more minor experiences with medical facilities (okay, yes, I did have a little bit of brain surgery), and it suddenly turns out that I actually know something at such a visceral level that I can conjure up a particular believable world without effort.
It also didn’t hurt that I was bedridden with flu when I wrote Little Choices, and had to work out all of the details in my head without recourse to the Internet. Now, whenever I am stuck for a story idea, I head down to the infectious diseases ward in the hopes of picking up something creative.
In addition to writing fiction, Arlen Feldman is a software engineer, entrepreneur and computer book author. He is also a costumer (albeit of questionable taste) and maker, and frequently talks at conventions on various topics.
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