You Don’t Always Have to Write What You Know by E. D. Baker
When I was growing up, I’d often hear that an author had to write what he knew. That’s good advice as far as it goes. A detective could write a great mystery. A cowboy could write a series of westerns. A doctor could write about the drama taking place in a hospital. But what about all those things no one knows about first hand? What about fantasy where fairy queens rule and dragons patrol the skies? Has anyone actually met a fairy or a fire-breathing dragon so they could describe what they’d seen?
When I wrote The Frog Princess, I discovered how much I didn’t know about ordinary things. What happens when a frog catches a fly? I had to look it up. What kinds of plants grow in swamps? Research it. I could handle that just fine. But when I wrote Dragon’s Breath and wanted to read about dragons, there wasn’t much to find. I read everything I could, of course. Some of it was helpful, some of it was contradictory, but unlike creatures that one could actually study, all of the information about dragons had come from people’s imaginations. Even centuries of such imaginings had yielded little ‘information’. I decided to use what I’d learned to make my dragons with my imagination filling in the gaps. In my worlds, fire-breathing dragons have magic of their own and its stronger than anyone else’s, including that of witches and fairies. In my worlds, true dragons are intelligent, strong and compassionate, not the monsters that terrorize villages and devour a farmer’s herd.
After writing about Ralf and his family in Dragon’s Breath, I came to like dragons very much. Emma, a Dragon Friend in Dragon’s Breath, learned how to turn herself into a dragon in Once Upon A Curse. Emma and I were both hooked. Now she could be a dragon whenever she wished. Unfortunately, she liked it so much that she passed the ability onto her infant daughter, Millie, who became a dragon far too easily in The Dragon Princess. Millie fell in love with an ice dragon, a type of dragon that I’d read about in Norse mythology. After Dragon’s Breath, dragons were in all of my Frog Princess stories, including my newest, The Frog Princess Returns.
True fire-breathing dragons didn’t exist in Annie’s world in The Wide Awake Princess, at least not until Princess Between Worlds, my first cross-over between The Wide Awake Princess series and the Tales of the Frog Princess. After that, dragons were in the rest of Annie’s stories, too.
Fairies inhabit even more of my books than do dragons. A fairy’s curse wreaked havoc with Emma’s family in the Tales of the Frog Princess. Both good fairies and bad bedevil Annie throughout The Wide Awake Princess series. Tamisin is half fairy in Fairy Wings and Fairy Lies. I had researched fairies before writing the books, but I didn’t like much of what I read, so I didn’t bring the Sidhe or the trooping fairies into any of my stories. In my worlds, most of the fairies are good, although sometimes a bit over-exuberant or ill-informed.
I look at fairies in a whole different way in The Fairy Tale Matchmaker series where fairies live among the other fey in their own world separate from the humans’. Although the fey use their magic when they’re at work, the rest of their lives is much like ours’. They go grocery shopping and clean house and cook. They go to concerts and walk their pets and throw parties. All of this is with a fairy tale twist, of course. I especially like the goblin wedding in the fourth book in the series, The Magic Match, which will be out in the fall.
After writing about dragons and fairies and all sorts of other unknowable beings over the years, I’d have to amend that familiar refrain. Write about what you know – when possible. Even more, write about what you want to know. Write about what you love, what excites you, what catches your interest if you were to see a book like it on a shelf. Research anything that is verifiably out there, read what other people have written about your topic, then use your imagination for the rest.
E.D. Baker is the author of the Tales of the Frog Princess series, The Wide-Awake Princess series, The Fairy-Tale Matchmaker series, and many other delightful books for young readers, including A Question of Magic, Fairy Wings,and Fairy Lies. The Frog Princess was the inspiration for Disney’s hit movie The Princess and the Frog. She lives with her family and their many animals in Maryland.
I tell my students, “Write what you know is emotionally true. The rest you can research or imagine!”
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