The oft-trotted-out advice is “write what you know.” In my experience, most writers take this as an invation to learn something new so thoroughly that they eventually know it well enough to write about it. Usually this blossoms from an already-existing interest, one that a writer may have studied casually for a while, or maybe one that just occurred fleetingly to the writer while she was staring at the wall one day.
And in this age of the Internet, you can learn pretty much anything with one little visit to Google. Writers these days have it good in the available references department.
It’s often pretty easy to find what these underlying interest are in a writer’s work. Yes, we as writers love plot and action and character and language, but then there’s that other “thing.” Tolkien took the language “thing” to a whole other level and basically created an entire universe from the grain of fantastical languages he created when he was a kid. Elvish culture is a lot easier to sell when you wrap it up in an epic tales of war and friendship and love and betrayal. Reading Pillars of the Earth, it is clear that Ken Follett has a “thing” for historical architecture. Amid all the other crazy shit going on in the Song of Ice and Fire books, George R.R. Martin often pauses amid the bloodshed to let you know what people are eating, usually a combination of medieval cuisine and whateverthehell else sounds like it would taste good. I’ve heard from friends that Robert Jordan would often STOP EVERYTHING to describe a lady’s gown. And say what you want about Dan Brown: the man has clearly logged a lot of hours looking up stuff about the Renaissance and staring at the Mona Lisa.
My “thing” appears to be medicine. This has surprised even me.
Maybe I watch too much Grey’s Anatomy?
Maybe I’m trying to root my story in my characters’ bodies and dole out realistic consequences to get rid of some of the ridiculous “sword and sorcery” baggage that comes with writing fantasy?
Oh God. Maybe my mom was right when she told me I really wanted to be a doctor…
Yeah, people in my book wear clothes of somewhat-described colour and shape. Yeah, they eat and drink sometimes. And yeah, buildings and mountains get some attention. But my book is mostly about the people, and apparently the varying ways in which those people require medical attention.
My book is heavy on the swords and sword-related injures, and easy on the sorcery. If someone is going to stop bleeding, it’s going to be because someone with medical know-how stepped in, not because of spells or prayer or magic/magick(s)/majick/whatever is the trendy spelling these days.
I spend a lot of time looking up herbal treatments for migraines, bloodletting, bruising, how to wrap injuries, natural poisons, natural remedies, which organs are in the immediate vicinity of where Sir Whatshisname just got ran through.
Maybe I do want to be a doctor… just in an age when doing this stuff would’ve gotten me a nice witch trial and an prompt burning at the stake.
For my current project, I opt to change the old adage to “write what you learn.” I’m learning a lot about ancient medicine, and how to hunt pheasant, and what the difference is between a doublet and a jerkin. I’m also learning how to write a whole damn book, and that one’s not so easy to Google.
But I’m also in the fiction business. And that means that sometimes I do just get to make stuff up.