Write about what you know.  But it’s not what you think.

Porphyra_yezoensisWhen I first became serious about writing, I thought it wise to get advice, but pre-internet days, this was not an easy task.  I had attended adult education courses at NYU in creative writing and at the New School in NYC on publishing.  Added to that, I would spend time leaning against racks of books in the NY Library and branded bookstores (pre-amazon) reading up on writing and publishing. 
To really make things hard on myself, I had zero pedigree in writing—zero!    I was a geek scientist with a great imagination.  That’s it.
Whether attending a lecture or reading up on my own, the advice seemed rooted into this simple concept:
     “Write about what you know”
Seriously?  No mater how hard I tried, there was no way I was going to make seaweed or TCP/IP into a Sci-Fi. 
      “She stood before me, the silhouette of her supple figure entrancing.  It was there that I draped my Porphyra yezoensis (Nori) over the banister and waited for the packets of TCP/IP at my hip to be delivered.  Bully!  What was I to do?…”
 
As a Marine Biologist with a specialty in seaweed and later as a technologist in network engineering, that is what I knew about.
I also learned that the lectures and Instructors of the events I attended as well as the ‘How to be an author’, authors,  were as frustrated as I was.  So I shelved my ideas of writing for 30 years, trying now and then, but never a spark.
It was maddening.  Like looking at a beautiful painting or reading the most perfect, flowing prose of a favorite author and then trying to apply that same lucidity into my own work.  It wasn’t happening.  My characters and words fell as flat onto the surface of the paper they were written on.  I had these great stories in my head and wrote the treatments into a leather bound book, hoping one day I would figure it out.
That day came three years ago.  I had just taken a rental on the upper east side of Manhattan and my neighbor in apartment 12K came over in a panic with a computer problem.  Before I even knew her name, she told me she was to give a lecture at Sotheby’s on famous jewelry heists the next day, and while finalizing her digital thoughts,  the laptop blue-screened with all her notes, images, and videos on it.    As I worked my magic, she occupied her panic by asking me about myself.  I hinted at being a writer one day and told her of a storyline (Silversides) and she loved it.   
The laptop resuscitating, she said to me,
      “So just fucking write it!” 
You have to know, she is a tough NY broad and the thought of not doing it, scared me.  So I did.  My characters were just as faceless and flat as always, but I got around the speed bump by not naming my characters.  She and Her go a long way.  I wasn’t concentrating on style or how fluid it read. Honestly, I was more afraid of not doing it, knowing Diana would check back with me as promised.
Page after page, I had been putting off naming my protagonist, She, and I knew any day now, Diana, was going to be knocking on my door.  In my own panic, I typed out, Nori……
That light bulb moment was blinding.  Suddenly my character had a face and I was no longer writing, but having a conversation. I quickly named my core remaining characters after seaweeds: Cyan (antagonist) Phaeo (beautiful), Rhodes (Nori’s right hand man), Corilline, and Codi (my fauna and flora buddies)—all shortened, genus names of seaweeds.
With my hand placed upon my forehead for effect, I had been taking the advice to literally and the lecturers and authors who touted the same advice were either keeping the secret to themselves or passing that information along because that is what they were taught—never truly understanding the meaning behind it.
It is not so much you need to write about what you know—after all, how much do I know about alien planets or cultures, or even spaceflight for that matter. What I do know a lot about is seaweed, biology and network connections.  So giving my characters names of seaweed, made that connection for me.  I could see their facial expressions as we spoke.  I followed them on trails through alien terrain. I was on the journey with them, documenting their tale as told to me.
Don’t take the advice of writing about what you know so literally.  Make a connection to plot and characters with what you know in the form of names and places and the rest will fill in more easily.  Get the story down in the form of a straw man, then go back through it, filling in the legs and arms to give it life and where it can stand up on its own.  Then go through it again, dressing it in a crisp ironed shirt and overalls.  Give it color and then present it to the world. 
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