August 4th, 2006

Write what you know?

"Write what you know" is a really standard piece of advice, but I'm not sure there's much evidence it's sound. There are certainly plenty of counter-examples. Did Swift know the Lilliputians? Had Dante or Milton researched the details of Heaven and Hell? Did Shakespeare know anything about Jews? (For more, see Gross's _Shylock_.)

Writing what you know will protect you from certain sorts of criticism, but I suspect that writing vividly about what fascinates you whether you know anything about it or not takes you further in terms of entrancing the reader.

There's more to fiction than immersion, but immersion is a crucial starting point.

I'm especially interested in what writers have to say about this--I just read the stuff.

Addendum: My favorite critical theory is "Criticism, at its best, is an effort to identify the qualities which seem to accompany success". I don't know where I got it from, and the phrasing probably isn't exact. To my mind, it means that you always check your theories about what fiction needs against the fiction which seems to satisfy people in large numbers over a long period of time and at various levels of knowledge and attention. If the fiction is too recent for the long period of time, you take your best guess. I'm not saying this is the only possible measure of success in fiction, but any fiction which meets it is successful.

Any rule which is broken by a significant number of successful works of fiction should be modified to indicate what sort of fiction it covers or else written off as something that just sounds plausible.

Criticism which does detailed, funny savaging of fiction which deserves it might not be criticism at its best, but it's still worth reading.

Cats in fiction

annafdd's list of things not to do in fiction reminds me of one of my peeves, cats that are just collections of humorously irritating or weird traits. Cats have personalities, and I can't think of any fiction from the human point of view that gets it right, though _Cats in Cyberspace_ by Beth Hilgartner and Diane Duane's cat wizard books are good from the cat point of view.

Any recommendations for human point of view fiction with cats?