When what you know gets in the way of writing

Like a lot of writers I have a pretty varied set of life experiences. This is great because it give me a deep well of experience to draw from, lots of things I can write about and at least have a clue about, without even delving into research mode. Of course research happens too… but that’s another post.

There can be a problem with that experience though.

Some of my background is growing up among hippies. That means I had a lot of exposure to some of the basics of living off the land, I had lots of time living in tents, and I knew what it was like to be really, really, really poor. Making do with what was on hand became an art.

As I got a bit older I became interested in back to the land stuff on my own, spending time learning things like how to make a rocket stove, or a primitive bow, or adobe bricks.

I also spent a lot of time learning martial arts. Just a personal interest. I have a number of years of experience in a number of different styles. I know what it feels like to hit someone, and to get hit.

All of this is useful. When my character Jasper from my novel A Long Walk has to survive, when he has to make fire for instance, I know what that entails. The problem is that I want to include all the details. I want to explain that he is using a fire bow, with cordage he stripped from the paracord bracelet he wears, and that he is lubricating the pressure plate with ear wax, so that it doesn’t build up too much heat, or the specific types of wood he is using for the spindle, for the burn plate, etc. I want to explain the makeup of the tinder bundle, which means I have to explain what a pressure plate is, what a spindle is, what a tinder bundle is, etc.

Nobody, I mean nobody, wants to read that book. Some survivalists might have a moment of “Oh cool, he actually knows something about this” but then they will get bored, because they already know all that. The people who don’t know it will be bored because they are reading for the story, and this knowledge does nothing for the story.

This is the stuff I cut most frequently. Almost none of it makes it into the final draft. I might take an in depth explanation of how a bus was set up with a rocket stove mass heater, and end up saying “The bus was warmed by a wood stove”.

So, was the original version a waste? No. Nobody but me may care about the specifics of the wood stove on the bus, but to me at least I know that the type of wood stove would work in the location I have sketched out, that the fuel supplies would be adequate, so that there is a reason for the characters to be able to use it, etc. In the end that detail means that my narrative makes sense, even if I’m the only one who has all the details (I do the same thing with characters).

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