Friday, March 4, 2011

"Write what you know"

The age-old advice that I've heard since I was a wee little Jeffling, is to write what you know.

Seems pretty sound. Don't you think?

It should go without saying (except that I'm saying it now) that experience enriches writing. You can know about a thing, study the subject all you like, observe it or watch it done, but unless you've actually gotten your hands dirty and gotten up close and personal with it -- if it's a verb, then, unless you've actually done it -- then it could be argued that you can't accurately impart the experience onto the reader.

For example, if you were a construction worker with literary aspirations, you could write pretty authoritatively about the trials and tribulations of construction workers. Your characters would be based on the people you knew. You can make the reader understand the full weight of your sledgehammer, the heat and the sweat, the long hours, the anger and frustration you feel over your corrupt boss and your weak union. You could fill your story with all the beautiful minutiae that we outside of the construction field might miss, that make a story real and true.

Okay, maybe you could risk a little extrapolation -- maybe you're a nurse but you know enough about doctors, or vice versa -- but the old adage "write what you know" taken in its purest and most literal form, pretty much limits us to writing our biographies. And, to paraphrase an old commercial, would you want to read a book about your life?

I don't like to be that restricted.

I don't want to write a book about, say, political and legal theory, small businesses, drives through Appalachia in a very small car, or over-brewed tea. Yet, by the literal definition of writing what I know, those and a handful of other minor misadventures are all I'm qualified to write.

Instead, what I'm writing, Project: Oz can loosely be described as a "fantasy western." There may be some over-brewed tea in there, but not much else that I've personally experienced.

Or is there?

The book has a theme, and that theme relates to that political theory that I mentioned above -- not in so many words, but the relationship is there. The book has characters; some of those characters are based directly on people I've known well, while others are composites. I've had to create a world that strongly resembles our own world in the Nineteenth Century, with a similar society and government, which relates to my backgrounds in political theory and also in history, a topic I've studied both formally and informally for years. Genre-wise, the book would obviously be found in the Science-Fiction Fantasy section of your local bookstore (or just plain fantasy if you've got a really good bookseller), and that's a genre in which I've read extensively for about as long as I've been able to read, so generously we could say that I'm more than passing familiar with its tropes.

Taking a looser definition of the "write what you know" adage, I'd say we're off to a good start.

I've never ridden a horse, but I could just drive up the road and learn. I've never shot a gun, but I know someone who could teach me. I've never been to Texas, but I could hop on a plane tomorrow, survey the Hill Country, and eat some barbecue.

That's all well and good. But one of my main characters is a wizard. Not just a main character -- a point-of-view character. Which means that he's casting spells, using magic. He's using it a lot. He's talking about it. He's thinking about it. And during those portions of the book that he's narrating, you, the reader, are casting spells with him.

Which means that I, the writer, have to know what that's like.

As far as we know, magic of this sort does not exist in our real, mundane world. Okay, well, neither do dinosaurs, but Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park (Knopf, 1990). To prepare for Jurassic Park, I figure Crichton either built a time machine or researched the topic. I can't do the one thing, but I can do the other: I can read up on magical practices throughout history (there's that history thing again!), from prehistoric shamanism through Middle Age alchemy to modern neo-paganism, Simon Magus and Nicholas Flamel and Aleister Crowley. Fiction and myth are practically filthy with wizards from whose experiences I can learn: Circe, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Prospero, Thoth-amon, Gandalf, Raistlin, Zed, and even Harry Potter are all fine role models.

Clearly, I can know about magic without ever practicing it myself, since that's impossible.

Or is it?

Enter my third-favorite game of all time, Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons, along with its myriad of technology-based followers (World of Warcraft, the increasingly inaccurately named Final Fantasy series, and Fable come to mind) allow one to swing a sword against an angry ogre, match wits with a devious archfiend, and sling fireballs at an evil god, all without ever leaving your chair.

As I realized on the drive home from my last D&D session, I had, through my character, Tym the gnomish sorcerer, used magic in a realistic, simulated problem-solving situation. Tym and I had done it with our staff in hand: engaged in combat, worked with a team, and completed a mission.

I couldn't know what it felt like to have the energy of the cosmos flow through me -- not without some pretty hefty drugs -- but through D&D I could test out the effects of sorcery in various situations.

While I already had a system of magic in place, it was all based on theory and explained how things worked the way they did, not how to implement them. I had, in essence, been doing it wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but there were things I hadn't thought all the way through, and in doing so, I had made my wizard protagonist too powerful.

And that just doesn't fit: he's a flawed character, so shouldn't his magic be likewise flawed? Shouldn't his spells take time to cast? Shouldn't enemies present a dangerous and moving target while he conjures their arcane doom -- they didn't all graduate from the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy, did they? And does his lightning bolt automatically hit its target? What happens when his aim is off and he winds up setting the room on fire?

These are questions that I'd been periodically asking myself for over a year now. But Dungeons & Dragons let me put the answers into practice. As a character, Tym may not be anything like my wizard protagonist, but the latter -- and the world he inhabits -- learns a lot from the former.

Hopefully, Project: Oz will be a lot better for it.

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