Writing what you know in science fiction and the suspension of disbelief

Peter F. Hamilton uses what he knows
to show us his vision of the future.
"Write what you know." 
How often we writers have heard this sentence and how many times we shook our head?
There are authors who are so tied to this concept that they only tell stories which end up becoming self-referential and, let's face it, not all that interesting, unless you have an extraordinary life.
If its meaning had to be taken to the letter, the whole speculation fiction would not exist at all. This is because you cannot know something that does not exist.
Admitting there is a problem in this famous statement, at the same time, does not mean that you should ignore it completely. As with all literary advices, it should be interpreted.

When you are suggested to write about what you know, you are not intended to focus only on this, but to include also this in your books. The difference between the two interpretations is enormous.
Although you write stories set in imaginary places and with impossible technologies, what makes them real are the little details and on these you should focus while narrating about what you experienced.
They may be small gestures of the characters, or interpersonal relationships, all aspects that are universal and transcend the spatial or temporal setting of a story. Moreover you can refer to real places, although transferred in contexts that are not real at all. Or you can include elements of our everyday life reinvented in the sci-fi story.

There are a lot of examples. In these days I'm reading the wonderful "Fallen Dragon" by Peter F. Hamilton, probably the greatest contemporary British science fiction author so far. Hamilton writes very long novels, which is already very peculiar. Moreover he narrates about very distant futures, in this case the twenty-fifth century. It is obvious that his imagination plays a vital role in filling the more than eight hundred pages of the book. It is equally obvious that he cannot have direct knowledge of how Earth will be in four hundred years, let alone any human colonies on other planets. But, if you read his book, you'll find that what makes it really captivating is not the ultra-advanced technology itself, but the human story of the protagonists.
In this novel we see the rule of "write what you know" applied in many different ways. There is the story of a clumsy teenager, similar to that of any other boy of his age. There is Earth in the future, but it is fully recognizable. Hamilton lingers even on showing how the buildings along the canals in Amsterdam are exactly as in the past, with the pulleys to lift the furniture and bring them into the houses.
This example shows the power of applying this principle. I have been to Amsterdam and while reading that passage of the novel I found myself there again in a second.
The inclusion of actual, known elements in a science fiction story has the ability to anchor the reader to something very clear in their mind, which is part of their personal experience, and thanks to which they are then brought to suspend their disbelief on anything else in the text.

Some time ago on FantaScientificast (an Italian sci-fi podcast) I spoke about how this mechanism works well with religion. We all have to do with religion, willy-nilly. Even if we are not believers, the religious elements, especially from Christianity (depending in which country you live), are part of our cultural background. And then, if an author includes a religion, themes or real elements relating to religion (like biblical quotations, hierarchical structures that remind us of the Church, architectural elements and so on), the reader recognizes them and takes a position of agreement or disagreement against them, ending up to identify themselves in the situation and the characters.

The idea of telling what you know is even more important in science fiction, when the latter addresses scientific topics, which usually are based on something real.
Again, in the above-mentioned book by Hamilton are amazing technologies that enable mankind to travel through portals to places at unimaginable distances or to change entire planets in order to make them suitable for human survival. It is obvious that in this case completely invented elements are often shown, but most details instead rely on scientific theories, even proven ones, from which the author takes its cue to develop the speculative part.
But this is precisely how we achieve the magic. Sometimes the two types of information are so closely related that even a reader with a scientific background finds it hard to establish clear boundaries between what is real and what is invented. The competence of the author on what is real is confused with the use of fantasy on what is invented. And once again you see the perfect fulfilment of the suspension of disbelief.

This article is originally available in Italian on Kipple Blog.


  1. Cara Carla, sono d'accordo con te su tutto. Aggiungo che per me l'utilizzo di questi espedienti serve per spingermi sempre più in là ed arrivare a rendere chiari i concetti di ciò che sarebbe al di là di ogni immaginazione...
    In altre parole, nel romanzo che sto scrivendo immagino qualcosa di molto particolare, direi quasi divino, che cerco di tradurre con immagini semplici, immediate e dirette.