Write What You Know, Right?

We have all have heard it, “Write what you know.” But unless we’re crafting a work of non-fiction can we ever really say we do that? Biographies aside, authors who delve into the realms of fiction often have to write what they DON’T know just to make it interesting. Take me for example, I mostly write science fiction. But have I ever been to space? Do I have a degree in some kind of hard science? Have I ever been abducted by aliens? NO!…or at least, not yet.

So what’s a writer to do? Well, the two things that come to my mind are to extrapolate from your own real-world experiences as much as possible and when that fails, do some research. As for real world extrapolation…that’s the easy part. Characters can be based on people you’ve known, dialog can flow from conversations you’ve actually had, and plots can be drawn from conflicts you have experienced personally. But then there’s that research part, and that can be a little tricky.

The problem is, you often don’t know what you don’t know. Assumptions can be dangerous as they can open you up to a plethora of errors that you will only discover as you read your Amazon reviews after the fact. And like outer space, many subjects are so vasty and wide that a writer may not know where to begin their research in the first place. But as for me, well, I’m lucky.

You see, at age 51, I’ve already worked in many of the fields that authors find relevant to fiction. Things like police dramas, military adventure, and spy novels prove less of a challenge to me simply because I’ve actually been there and done that. And no, I’m not any kind of Rambo or Indiana Jones, I simply needed a job and found that with my skills only certain people would hire me. And besides, my wife says I’m really whiney when I’m unemployed.

I joined the US Navy just out of high school and served in the Persian Gulf during the Iran/Iraq War, but only ever intended military service as a way to pay for college. Later, after my post-college career fell through, I joined the National Guard to make ends meet and found myself in uniform just in time for 9/11 and the Iraq War. Through my National Guard connections, I met a deputy sheriff and was able to start a career in law enforcement (which I’m still in today). And due to my high test scores, the Army decided to train me in Counterintelligence and sent me back to Iraq as an agent. So for me, writing what I know comes easy and the parts I don’t know do not take me too long to research.

So what did I do with all this life experience? Well, after getting asked thousands of questions by writer friends about the military, police, and spy worlds, I decided to write a book on the subject. Armed Professions: A Writer’s Guide is meant as a starting point for writers who have a great idea for a story but have no real-world experience in the field. So far, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments from my fellow writers on the book and I’m happy to have been of help. Now, if someone out there would just write a similar book on space travel I’d appreciate it.

Clayton J. Callahan

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