Verne, Dickens, and Some Rambling Thoughts On “Writing What You Know.”

As a budding young fantasy author,* I often scoffed at this familiar writing advice: “Write what you know.” I was a fantasy author, thankyouverymuch.

After all, none of us have ever experienced flight on a griffin (sadly), met an elf (sadly), or consumed a potion that made us sprout wings (sadly). Fantasy is fantasy. It’s dreams, nightmares, and altered reality. That was the point.

*My teenage self was so much more self-assured than my adult self, for some reason

Despite my teenage wisdom, my writing instructors liked to point out that I spent too much time writing about things I wasn’t familiar with, and that I needed to draw from my own life experiences to enrich my stories. And you know what, they were (mostly) right. Because they weren’t talking about griffins, elves, and potions. Not really. It was a lot deeper than that.

When I first started writing, my characters were all larger-than-life. You know what I mean – they were personas, caricatures, almost. They were my idealized (or demonized) selves. If they had strengths, they were glorious. If they had flaws, they were the flaws of Greek Tragedy. In other words, every book I wrote starred superheroes. There were no petty mortals in Rebekah’s fiction. 
I blame too many classic epics before age 16, and Thor comics.
Some years later, I realized something very important and obvious – I’m a petty mortal. I don’t say that in a disparaging way. It’s just this:

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

Hamlet – Act IV, Scene III

So my point? No matter how awesome your character is, if you don’t humanize them, then no one can relate to them. It’s true for Thor, and it’s true for your characters too.

You see, when I was writing about griffins and potions and stuff, I wasn’t writing fantasy just because those things aren’t real – I was writing fantasy that wasn’t grounded in reality at all. That only sounds cool. What it really means is that I was writing overblown epics that were no more “me” than contemporary YA was (a genre I still avoid).

Back to the writing instructors. They were trying to point this out, nicely. I was just making stuff up, and there was no depth or scope to my worlds or characters. I might have been creative about it – but the point remains – my books were just pretty pictures, fragments of ideas, and they needed roots.

I’m going to be corny and say that some of this was helped by growing up. But not all of it. Some of it was swallowing my pride and *actually* writing what I understood first. That didn’t mean that I started writing exclusively about grumpy homeschooled girls with too many classes, a fondness for long books, and a crappy computer. It meant that I started grounding my characters and worlds in what I knew of my world. There had to be a foundation before I started spinning spiderwebs.

This was really, really hard for me.

I’ve always been good at telling tall tales. The wilder the story, the easier time I had keeping a straight face. I’m not saying I was a liar, I’m just saying I had a tendency to embellish things. Convincingly.

So how do you write about worlds you’ve never seen, and people you’ve never been? It’s actually not that complicated. But it does take determination and hard work.

Jules Verne (1828-1905) penned some pioneering adventure/scifi stories ever. 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaThe Mysterious IslandAround the World in Eighty Days – and so on. When Jules Verne started writing, he was a stockbroker. If that doesn’t sound boring to you, you might be a stockbroker. His first longer work, Five Weeks in a Balloon, was mainly set in Africa. But Verne had never been to Africa. Five Weeks in a Balloon was a story full of experiences that Verne himself never had. But he rose early every morning to research. He educated himself in science, geography, and world cultures. And though he eventually traveled (mainly by sea), he did not travel around the world in 80 days, or go to the North Pole,* or see the space program (though in 1870, he wrote a sci-fi novel about Americans reaching space, after launching from Florida).

note: *Robert Peary’s North Pole expedition was around 10 years later

So how did Jules Verne do it? Research. Dedication. He created human characters with a thirst for adventure and knowledge that he shared. We are still reading his books today because they are good books, but imagine if Jules Verne had only ever written about selling stocks? I doubt we’d still be reading that.

“The latter, without a word, made a rush for him, grasped him by the throat, and, much to the amusement of a group of Americans, who immediately began to bet on him, administered to the detective a perfect volley of blows, which proved the great superiority of French over English pugilistic skill.”

Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days

On the other side of this divide is Charles Dickens. (1812-1870).

A Tale of Two Cities? Oliver Twist? Great Expectations? David Copperfield? Even if you hate the man’s novels, you have to give him credit. He’s one of the most enduring of the Victorian novelists, and his books are a brilliant mixture of social commentary, story, and humor.

Unlike Jules Verne, Dickens grew up quite poor, and his father was sent to debtor’s prison when Dickens was 12. Dickens had to leave school go to work at a boot-blacking factory. It was a miserable job, by all accounts, and Dickens later drew on his childhood experiences for Oliver Twist.

After getting an office job at 15, Dickens ventured into writing. He started with humorous sketches and journalism, but the former quickly became his specialty. Dickens took the people he met and exaggerated them just a bit, populating his novels with colorful casts of beggars, wealthy benefactors, eccentrics, and hapless young men. Dickens skillfully combined his real-world experiences with sensational melodrama in both David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. In A Tale of Two Cities, he used the real background of the French Revolution and combined it with a classic literary device – two men who look identical, but have diametrically opposed personalities – and wrote a beautiful, moving book.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens elaborated on his reality, and Verne added reality to his fantasies.

Both of them lived long before there was an enormous information trade. Both combined what they knew with fantasy, in some sense of the word or another. Both of them worked hard to create vivid characters and/or worlds for them to inhabit.
Verne studied so he could write about things he didn’t understand. Dickens studied people so he could understand what he wrote about.

As a fantasy author, your lot is both harder and easier than theirs was. We have the internet, and a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. With a few taps, we can study the Inuits, or the Sahara Desert, all without leaving our chairs. But this doesn’t mean we can be sloppy – not at all. In a world that is somewhat without borders, we have to be more careful than ever.

However, people are still people. A teenage girl in 6th Century Britain is quite different from a teenage girl in 21st Century New York – but they are both teenagers. That means they both experienced the same hormonal/mental/physical changes.

Likewise, Melora, the protagonist of my novel Knight of the Blue Surcoat worries about many of the same things that any teenage girl might worry about. Despite the fact that she is the heir to a legendary kingdom, she still has to balance her parents’ desires with her own beliefs. She has doubts, fears, and dreams of her own. She fears that she’s nothing more than a shadow of her famous parents. She struggles with her identity as a person, a daughter, a princess, and a young woman.

While I’m far from royal material, I can (or could at some point) relate to every other thing that Melora thought or felt. And we’re nothing alike!

Despite our differences, Melora was a teenager growing up and having to deal with adult problems and responsibilities.

But what about things you’ve never experienced?

If we restricted ourselves to our own experiences, books would be really boring. Well, 90% of books would be boring. And there’s no guarantee that people with exciting lives can write worth a darn. That isn’t the real point of “Writing what you know,” right?

Another example: I’ve never been in a knife fight (thank goodness) or been remotely “in love.” And yet, these two things have happened (more than once) to characters in my novels.

The knife fight is easy. You can read about them. We’ve all seen movies with them (I think). And the purpose of a knife is pretty obvious. It’s supposed to be sharp and cut things. In a fight, you’re either trying to cut someone else, or protect yourself from being cut.

“Falling in love” is a heckuva lot more complicated. Especially if you have never even fancied (non-fictional) people (and even if I did, I’m not telling.*)

*have I mentioned that my mental age is probably around 9? More importantly, I have an image to maintain!

Obviously, there are people I love and care about, so that’s a good emotional starting point.
But how do you fabricate such a tangled psychological/physical web of emotions and reactions?

RESEARCH. (High five if you knew I was going to say that)

Open your eyes and your ears, and look around you. Have you ever sat by a young couple who just got engaged? (I’ve done it more than once, and it’s not my activity of choice)

Watch how they interact – how they treat each other, even their spacial awareness. Their body language will be drastically different from how they behave when they sit by a stranger, or their best friend. And what about internally? How do they feel? If you don’t have any idea, then:

A. You are a legitimate Vulcan*

B. You’ve never communicated with another human being about their feelings.

C. You’ve never read a book/watched a movie/listened to a song that talked about love. Ever. And that probably means you’ve never been to a grocery store, while we’re at it . . . but I digress.

*Despite my pretensions, I’m not a real Vulcan. I like to laugh WAY too much.

I think most of us have listened to at least one love song. Even if it didn’t have words. And I know that you readers have read at least one book with a romance in it. Because books without ANY sort of romantic relationship between ANYONE have never crossed my radar. Even books without romances usually have couples somewhere in them.* That’s reality.

*(Even Brave New World, which would be on my Top 10 Least Romantic Books of All Time List, if I bothered to make one)

And while I wouldn’t recommend that you come to me for relationship advice, I’m pretty confident that my few fictional forays into the subject came off as legitimate, thanks to research and a decent imagination.

This is where varied and diverse Beta Readers really come in handy, by the way. Say you’ve never been skydiving, but you have a character go skydiving. A friend who has been skydiving will be able to tell you if you were accurate or not. And you know what, if romance and/or skydiving are things you can live without in your novels, don’t feel pressured to add them. I’m perfectly happy writing about angsty food service employees (a subject I know a lot about) or dancing criminals (research) instead.

Find something you love to write about. Know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and a person, and work on improving yourself. Study hard. Ask questions. Keep an open mind. And in the end, write from your own feelings and experiences, and stay in touch with the world around you. Your writing will be better for it 🙂

Agree with me? Disagree? I want to know.

And how do you feel about writing things you’re not “qualified” to write about? Do you think research can solve everything, or do you think some experience needs to be there?

*No gifs? Is this really my post? Oh, and if you really want to know where I got all this Verne and Dickens stuff, I’ll give you the list.

9 thoughts on “Verne, Dickens, and Some Rambling Thoughts On “Writing What You Know.””

  1. I agree with you, I have a lot of fun trying to find something that me and my character both relate on. Also trying to make something like a queen or a princess relatable takes work, but can be interesting.

    1. I always do that in the character development stage. If I can’t get in my MC’s head, I can’t write them as well!
      It IS hard putting yourself in royal shoes, lol. I had a bit of a time there.

  2. Wow. Awesome post, Rebekah. You make some great points about writing from experience, research, and imagination. I think it’s important to find a balance of these when we write – though the trick is often achieving that balance in the first place.

    Example: I tend to rely on imagination and research when I write stories. A lot of it is due to shyness and not always being “courageous” enough to ask questions or put myself out there. But thanks to TKC, I realized that I need to experience things sometimes, too. So I took archery lessons for the first time, and learned quite a bit that can help me portray archery and handling arrows, bows, and other equipment accurately. Now I want to take horseback riding lessons this spring / summer. (Which reminds me: I need to start looking up local stables.)

    And like you said, all stories (speculative or not) need to be grounded in some kind of reality, whether it’s believable characters or accuracy in facts and details. If something is wrong in either category, someone is bound to catch it. And if that does happen, it’s better to have it happen during the beta-reader stage than once a story is published.

    Again, great job on this topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

    1. Aww, thanks Sara! It was really random – I’d just been thinking about “armchair traveling” (which I’ve done a lot of), and how awesome it would be to *actually* visit some of the places I write about someday!

      I agree completely about balance. Like with most areas of life, writing involves a careful balance – juggling what you have and haven’t done (and in many cases, would NOT do). While I’m all for experiencing things – sometimes it just isn’t possible. So I always admire people (such as yourself) who actually learn skills or try things. That’s just “research” of a different sort 🙂

      And as for what you said about beta readers, it’s very true! I put a ton of work into making sure the geographical distances and math in Knight of the Blue Surcoat were accurate for travel by horseback, and for Melora’s route. And then I said (internally), “well, no one will check that sort of thing.” Uhhh, I was wrong 😛 A friend of mine (who is really, really sharp with numbers) read the manuscript. Afterwards, he goes, “I checked all the numbers myself. And you were actually spot on.” I laughed pretty hard at that one. But hey, it was nice to have the work validated! (Despite the backhanded complement there).

      And speaking of horses, I took lessons for awhile when I was younger. It was a ton of fun, but not cheap! I still love horses, and I’d like to own one someday 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  3. This is a neat discussion! I’ve also written a post on this matter, but not in this much detail. When it comes to worlds and things that you can’t possibly nor want to experience, belief can be suspended, but definitely emotions to do with characters can’t be cheapened. It’s how we relate to them.

  4. I’m a Vulcan!
    No, lol, I just wanted to say that. 😛
    Anyhow, I agree with you completely. Research is the key when we writers can’t fully experience something ourselves. I’ve taken horseback riding lessons, some archery, and martial arts in the past, which is a help for me as I write V.Chronicles now. But there are so many things I can’t try out myself: like riding a dragon (sadly), being cast out of your own hometown, living in disguise, etc. While I can’t research these things, I can study similar experiences and use my imagination for the rest. Much like what Tolkien probably did.

    You mentioned figuring out traveling distances. What numbers did you use as a base to figure out travel time? How many miles walking on level terrain = 1 hour?
    I’m at the stage where I have to figure those numbers out, so I’m curious. 🙂

    1. -on the numbers- ohhhh gooooosh – I spent hours pouring over printouts of maps, and books on cartography and travel. I actually had a map and a globe on me at all times, lol. And I had to take into account that Melora would be measuring her distances in leagues (originally the distance a person could walk in an hour, so that’s REALLY imprecise). However, it’s pretty much accepted that a league is around 3 miles. On sea, it’s three nautical miles, so more measurements. To complicate matters, a Roman mile (which Melora might have conceivably used) is around 1.5 miles . . .
      Anyhow, this website is great for getting basic figures (though I recommend you check them with a couple sources):
      I used it a lot! There’s a really nifty feature where you can calculate the average amount of time it would take a person to travel a distance on foot.
      I hope this helps!!

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