September 4th, 2014

granada holmes

on writing what you know

I've been thinking a bit about that old writer's adage, "write what you know." Specifically I've been thinking about the advice I've seen a few times over at Tumblr lately, to forget about it, and I find myself thinking "not so fast." Maybe I really am just being contrary, but it seems that the question is more complex than it seems at first, which maes me think it's worth talking about.

When I hear people saying you don't have to just write what you know, I'm drawn immediately (as I am with quite a few things these days) to what I know and particularly what I used to study in philosophy. With my freshman classes (standard Philosophy 101, a kind of thematic introduction to the major ideas in western philosophy) I spent a lot of time on Descartes and Hume, and what they thought it meant to know something, where our ideas came from and what made them true. And Hume had this rather interesting idea that I think might be helpful when it comes to the whole "don't just write what you know" claim.

Say a friend knew you liked Harry Potter books. She'd never seen the movies or read the books but she'd heard the word Hogwarts and she's interested to know about it so she asks you what kind of place Hogwarts is. You might describe it as something like a boarding school but with courses we don't really have available to us, like herbology and potions. She knows about boarding school (perhaps she went to one herself) but she has no clue what you mean by herbology and potions. So you start with herbology and say it's kind of a cross between botany and homeopathic medicine, but with more of a focus on just when to harvest certain plants because that affects their usefulness. And with potions you'd say it's kind of like chemistry, but it's different because... whatever you think potions has that chemistry lacks, or that would be true of chemistry but not of potions. And on down the list. The point is, if you want to introduce her to a new concept you're going to have to start with things she knows, things she's observed, and throw in components she knows from another context. If I didn't know what a square was, telling me "it's a kind of rectangle where all the sides are equal length" will only help me understand it if I already know what we mean by rectangle, sides, equality, and so on. I may not be used to putting all those concepts together, but if I don't already have the building block I'll never know what it means to be a square. And if I don't have some knowledge of botany and homeopathy and the other qualifications you threw in I'll never understand what is meant by herbology.

That's Hume's basic point. There are two basic ways we can learn about something. Method #1 is the simplest: see it for yourself. Get some direct impressions. (Impression = a technical term, which essentially means sense-data, the sights and sounds and so-forth that we observe directly for ourselves about something.) So if I want to get an idea of what the situation is like in Ferguson, I could go live there myself. I could get second-hand accounts from books or other people's stories that would help me form an incomplete picture, maybe. But method #2 is synthesis. If someone told me that it's not so different from Glenville, an area of the Cleveland area I knew when I was in grad school there, except that there's less crime and more people put in jail for things that don't seem clearly criminal (like being unable to pay parking tickets), which leads to mistrust of the police. Or whatever the person trying to help me understand Ferguson thought was the pertinent difference. The point is, you start off with something you know, add in or take away something else you already know but don't usually associate with the first concept, and you get an approximation. of the thing in question. It works that way for fictional things, too. Dragons are really huge lizards that can fly and breathe fire. Hobbits are short people. A unicorn is like a horse but with a horn growing out of its head, etc. Elves are kind of like humans but they don't die of old age, etc. Sherlock Holmes is a man with a genius both for forensic chemistry and for more general deductions about situations described to him. And on the list goes. The point is that you can't know what it means to be an elf unless you can work out what it would mean to be human in a society where people didn't have set lifespans. You have to know both components and how they fit together to understand what it means to be an elf.

And I think Hume is basically right here. Not that we only know things we've perceived directly or perceived the parts and put together using our imagination; I think there are some things we just know, innately, without having to perceive the idea. But on how we learn new concepts, hwe we wrap our heads around things we don't already know, his approach seems pretty accurate to how my own mind works. I can't know what Paris is like unless I can relate it to things I already do know and modify it so parts of it are like New York, parts of it are like Munich. [Bad example as I actually have been to Paris a few times, but work with me...] ANd I can't know what it would mean to be an elf unless I can work out what it means to be a human and how adding indefinitely long lives into the mix would change things. (As I'm unlikely to actually meet an elf myself.) This seems to be how cognition and imagination work, both with actual things and with imagined things.

So what does this have to do with writing what you know. Just this: if people are hearing the write-what-you-know rule as saying you can't write Denethor because you've never been the ruler of a quasi-medieval realm, you can't write John Watson because you've never been to war, etc. obviously that's bad. You can write all of these things and more - but you need a way to understand what it means to be a veteran and what it means to return home. And the best way I know to do that is to get some understanding from somewhere to what goes into that psyche and to find some way to relate to it.

Let's take John's character on the BBC version of Sherlock. I have never been a soldier, let alone one who was booted out. I have known American veterans, some recently turned into civilians, both in my students and in my own family. I also can relate to some of his experiences: the debilitating conditions that seem "all in your head" and so not real, the nightmares, the transformative experiences that separate you in a way from people who haven't gone through them. I can sympathize with John clenching his fist as Mike prattles on about growing old and getting fat because I've had so many conversations like that with people who seem to have such normal lives. So if I were to write a story built around that scene, I could (and I'd argue, should) tap into my own similar experiences. Of course they'd be different because John has experiences and elements to his personality and experience that I lack, but the starting place has to either be direct experience of people like him (say, hanging out around veteran doctors or men with psychosomatic injuries) or it has to be a synthesis of different parts we've encountered in different contexts.

Of course, some people write great fanfic (and fiction) where they share the same background as the characters. The most recent example I've come across is probably In Confidence by emmadelosnardos, a story about Sherlock's time in drug rehab written as session notes and transcripts - by an author working on a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, if I remember correctly. Certainly training in the psychological sciences, and someone who had the practical experience to where both the mindset and the style of writing came easily. (One more for the "I really must write up a proper recommendation for that" pile, and one I highly recommend to any Sherlockians.) But even then, the author has never been Sherlock's therapist so she still had to synthesize the experiences she's had with ones she hadn't had in that context (maybe dealing with a genius client or a musician client or a client who had any of the spoilerish issues Sherlock does in that story, which she might have had in some version in other clients but I have to imagine not all together like that). That seems to be what it means to create a fictional world: to combine the things we know in a new way that lets us tell the story we want to tell.

But it has to begin somewhere, and the experiences we have -- of someone alienated from his friends and family, of a worried parent or sibling, of someone with psychological or physical or financial problems of some sort -- can and should be part of that picture. It's the most organic way I know to do world-building and character-building, the way that seems to get across all the complexity of humanity. And sometimes there will be things outside our experience where we need to do some research or talk to someone coming from a more similar world, but I think writing what you know in this way can be a good way to write convincingly. Of course we shouldn't write just what we know. But the tattoo artist who's writing a Sherlock-as-a-tattoo-artist AU, the horseback rider who knows what it's like to ride a horse all day long who tries to parlay that into a story about Eowyn riding to Pelennor Fields still has to do the synthesis thing. If there's no synthesis at all, that's writing a memoir or a history more than fiction.

So if that's what we mean by "write what you know," I say good riddance to that rule. It's limiting and unnecessarily so. But I don't actually think it is what the rule means, certainly not what it has to mean, and I worry that sometimes some writers go too far to the other extreme. Certainly in my own writing, I think I've done my best work when I started with what I knew and used that as the building blocks for the story I wanted to tell.
granada holmes

Sherlock box set + job hunt news

Some fun news for the Sherlock fandom: we're getting an ultra-deluxe, so-expensive-it-ought-to-include-cookies-from-Mrs.-H. box set. For serious fans of the show it's probably worth the $200 price tag, particularly if you want DVDs and don't already have the series: it includes all three series but also the long-desired gag reel from the first two series, a deleted scene from series three, other goodies of a behind-the-scenes sort, as well as some printed fanart that looks a lot like Alice Zhang's work (though I'm just assuming) as well as busts of Sherlock and John.

The funny thing is back in the heyday of the Tolkien films, if I'd been an adult with actual money rather than a perpetually-broke college student, I probably would have lapped all of those up particularly if I hadn't already bought the extended DVDs, which I had. With Sherlock I'm a bit of a different kind of fan. I'm more attracted to the fandom than the show itself in a lot of ways, and so I'd much rather spend my cash commissioning artwork and buying Doyle pastiches than buying a piece of merchandise. I just don't need physical objects with this show. Not that I've gone all Buddhist when it comes to hobbies; it's just that I access most things electronically and I don't ever watch the DVDs I have. I'd probably pay good $$$ to access some of those special features if I could do that with the ones I was interested in, like was available with the Day of the Doctor specials. I bought a few of those, and since I'm so much more interested in Sherlock I probably would buy nearly all of them. But I just don't watch DVDs, it's too much trouble to pull them out and then remember to put them away again. Busts imply bookshelf space in need of filling, and I'm 99.9% confident that if the features aren't made available for purchase online (as in streaming video vs. DVD) they'll be put up illicitly. And Team 221B has already gotten their pound of flesh and more out of me; on top of having streaming services that give me streaming access to the shows I've also bought the videos as a way of supporting them, along with streaming versions of all the soundtracks and several books about the making of the show. So I think I'm doing my part. :-)

Still, it fascinates me how much we change, how I change, how the technology changes the way we take part in these stories. I would have loved to have an uber-special-edition version of Return of the King with that bust of Minas Tirith back in the day. That just doesn't seem to be who I am these days.

Other news: I got invited out to a series of on-site interviews tomorrow afternoon with the academic coordinator job I mentioned. I'm excited, but also of course nervous. *crosses fingers*
granada holmes

reason #1,437 that HLV just fails to make basic sense

I've been thinking a bit about His Last Vow and the Marry-Magnussen plot arc, and the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. A lot of people have talked about how the whole shooting of Sherlock and forgiveness (-ish, so majorly -ish) of Mary doesn't make much sense at all. I don't disagree with that, and that's a major part of why I felt Team 221B has only given us fans half of a story and left us dangling for two years. The events particularly in HLV seem to contradict each other no matter which way I approach them, and it's not a compelling cliffhanger so much as a What the !@#$ is going on again? moment that's frustrating rather than compelling.

But I actually don't want to talk about that issue of plausibility because I think there's a much more fundamental one that makes the whole plot just seem sort of stupid. Namely: why does Magnussen think controlling Mary would help him control Mycroft? (Major SPOILERS for HLV ahead, obviously.)

The starting situation as I understand it is that Mary has a Past with a capital P, one that is not only immoral but dangerous to her and John. Magnussen thinks this sets up a chain of people he can effectively threaten: Mary to John, John to Sherlock, Sherlock to Mycroft. Which gives him what he wants more than anything, the most powerful man in Britain under his sway. The problem is, the chains of influence is going the wrong way, and it's actually hugely improbable to me that this would give him that control. Here's why.

(1) First, there's Mary. Obviously she cares a great deal about keeping her secrets, but a lot of that desire seems to come from wanting to keep John in the dark. She thinks it will drive him from her, that he'd never forgive her. And John hasn't actually done anything questionable regarding her except be fooled by her at this point. So the only way Mary gives Magnussen pull over John is if John decides to stick by her, which seems unlikely enough that Magnussen wouldn't count on it - meaning that the moment he tries to exercise power over John because of Mary's past, he risks throwing away that control.

(2) Second, there's the link from John to Sherlock. Sherlock would do quite literally anything in his power to keep John happy and safe. If John wants to get married, Sherlock will start poking around YouTube learning how to fold napkins into Sydney Opera Houses. If John's safety requires him to throw away his reputation and his friendships and his life in Baker Street and even his continued existence by John's side, then he will do that. Sherlock cares enormously about John's wellbeing, and if John stayed committed to Mary and Sherlock decided this was a commitment that would actually give John a good life, then Mary's past gives Magnussen leverage over Sherlock. But that's a mighty big if. Even if John stays committed to Mary after learning the truth about her (long-shot #1), Sherlock still has to think that John staying in a relationship with Mary is actually going to be a good, safe life for John (long-shot #2). Because it seems very plausible that Sherlock would turn to John on hearing the truth about Mary and say that this is a woman who lied to you at every step of the way, she shot me and would have landed you right back where I did two years ago (my deepest apologies once more for that, by the way, I know that was completely inexcusable), and what we need to do is get you out of this relationship. We need to do it safely, we need to work out a way to protect your child, but Mary is not a woman you can trust.

Put more directly: Sherlock could have decided to protect John and Mary's relationship, which would have given Magnussen leverage over him. But just as plausibly (if not moreso), he could have found a way to protect John by safely extricating him from the relationship with Mary. Some fans will argue that a lot of what we saw post-Lauriston Gardens was play-acting for Mary's benefit, that to keep John and John's child safe he had to make Mary think that reconciliation was a possibility. But even if you think it was genuine, that with absolutely no explanation why, Sherlock was willing to jump from "John Watson is definitely in danger" pulling him back to the dead all the way to "Let me make this dangerous relationship work for John even if it means I have to go to prison or exile so I won't be around to protect him anymore" - even if there's a story we haven't been told yet for why that jump is plausible, that's one heck of an assumption for Magnussen to make, that not only would John want to stand by her side but that Sherlock would decide supporting this relationship was the best way to support John.

(3) And finally there's Mycroft. Mycroft obviously cares deeply for Sherlock in the same way Sherlock does for John, but he's always seemed on the fence about John. He seems to trust John professionally and he keeps an eye on him because John's well-being impacts Sherlock's well-being. But going all the way back to Study in Scarlet, Mycroft wasn't sure that John was good for Sherlock. In TSOT he told Sherlock he shouldn't have gotten involved, we've got the whole "caring is not an advantage" thing. I mean, Mycroft will be there for Sherlock because that's what he does, but I'm not sure that Mycroft's preferred path to making Sherlock happy and hale would be to keep John around, much less keep John around in a relationship with Mary. (I mean, even without knowing what we do about Mary's past, three weeks after the wedding we find Sherlock passed out on a mattress in a drug den and then later that same night mysteriously shot through the chest, so it's not like John's marriage is working out so well for Sherlock.) So again, Mycroft is going to protect Sherlock but Magnussen needs more than that. He needs Mycroft to protect Sherlock by protecting John by protecting Mary.

If I were Mycroft, I'd arrange for Mary to get run over by a bus crossing the street. If I was feeling particularly generous I'd wait until the baby was born. And that's not because I hate Mary or want to see her dead or particularly like the idea of evil!Mycroft - it's that Magnussen makes her a threat to his influence and I think Mycroft could justify the death of one ex-assassin since in his line of business those sacrifices don't seem all that unusual.

And if I were Magnussen, I don't think I'd need Mary. Mycroft has done some seriously shady stuff in the course of the series. There's Bond Air and his brother's involvement. The complete lack of any kind of prosecution for the bombings in The Great Game. The fact that Sherlock was allowed to get hold and try to pass on the Bruce Partington Plans and then his laptop. I mean, all Magnussen needs to know is that Sherlock got his hands on a top-secret government laptop to paint Mycroft as dangerously incompetent (at best) - he doesn't have to accept it, just question how the heck Sherlock even got his hands on it, and Mycroft's career gets nudged into a nose-dive. That's so much more damaging than the whole "your brother is best friends with a man who just married a woman that (a) said best friend met while your brother was completely out of touch for two years, and (b) neither said best friend nor your brother knew about her past or have done anything to cover up."

As I said, it just doesn't make sense to me why a master blackmailer would take Door #1 in this scenario. If his real goal is to control Mycroft rather than just make life miserable for Mary, this plan seems pretty far-fetched and not at all the most likely course to get him that control.