Saturday, 26 June 2010

A little knowledge

One curiousity of the writing game is that too much expertise can be a bad thing in some areas. The usual advice is to write what you know, but is it possible to know something too well?

I think it is, mostly because of my fight scenes. You see, my hobbies have included an assortment of martial arts over the years, so in theory, I should have the interest and knowledge to write great fight scenes in my thrillers. Except...

My experience of these things is that fighting is hurried, brief, and frankly rather uninteresting in the detail. I see one of those complex, interesting scenes in my head, and then I start overruling myself. I let reality get in the way of the writing.

Or worse, I have to overrule the urge to reference specific techniques and ideas that only really make sense to a specialist. I know that happens to other people. Tricia Sullivan's wonderful book Someone to Watch Over Me falls foul of it, as the thriller's more violent scenes spill over into a bit of a discourse on the proper way to do this sort of thing. The difference between her work and mine is that the rest of StWOM is sufficiently brilliant that I can't imagine the average reader minds.

This sort of thing is true of other areas. There is a reason I don't write historical fiction, for example, and that is because I just know that an obsessive need for accuracy would take over. I couldn't finish Philippa Gregory's The Greatest Knight for example. Mostly, admittedly, because it was due back at the library, but partly because she had some intriguing ideas about chivalry being real on twelfth century tournament fields. It is a wonderful book in every other respect (or the first bit is, I assume the rest is too) but sheer pickiness stopped me.

Is this true for anyone else? In theory, our expertise in baking/classic cars/butterflies of the Iberian penninsula (it occurs to me that the last phrase could seriously mess up somebody's search engine results, but only if they were searching for something very odd) should add to our stories, but do you have trouble stopping your sailing scene becoming a how to work for would-be sailors?

Is it, in short, better to write what you don't know?


Theresa Milstein said...

I haven't had that problem, but I've noted it in critique groups. Someone wrote a memoir-like piece about a musician and the detail of the town and bands dragged the story. It was the same for another thinly disguised memoir.

Ted Cross said...

I make my fights brief and brutal, because that's more authentic in my opinion. I had no trouble with thinking readers would want longer scenes.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Brilliant question. Although, writing about what you don't know could cause anxiety to get it right and put in every detail, too. Maybe we should think of this as seasoning. We want a taste, a thrill, but not the whole bottle dumped on the dish.

Raquel Byrnes said...

I seem to write better when I research just enough to wing it. When I become an expert on something I tend to want to be too accurate and that slows things down.

Suzie said...

I'm in drive-by mode, here... :)
So, just a quick "You have an award on my blog"!

Sorry I couldn't stay longer. :(