by Winnie Kay
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were known to Mark Twain.
Write What You Know
“Write what you know.” These famous words by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, have been the mantra of many fiction writers for more than a century. The characters and the settings of Twain’s novels parallel his real-life experiences.
Raised in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the great Mississippi River, Clemens was no stranger to the harsh realities of living in a slave state. His father, John Marshall Clemens, was a Virginian slave owner. At the age of twenty-two, young Samuel was encouraged by steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby to acquire his own pilot’s license. Thus began a two-year adventure studying the ever twisting, turning path of the mighty Mississippi. It was during these years that Clemens acquired his pen name: the nautical measurement, or depth-sounding, for two fathoms is referred to as the mark of twain. In 1859, he received his steamboat pilot license and earned an impressive monthly wage of $250.
This bit of biographical information surrounding iconic humorist Mark Twain proves his point: “Write what you know.” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, would never have been written had Clemens never experienced life as a steamboat pilot along the Mississippi River in an era of slavery, Indian raids, railroad construction, and the emergence of civil unrest with the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln. Neither Huck nor Jim the slave would have embarked on an epic adventure rafting down the river—one to escape an abusive father, the other to prevent being sold downriver where conditions for slaves were harsher than in the fictitious town of St. Petersburg.
Twain’s advice doesn’t mean you are stuck with writing only non-fiction biographies and how-to books. Your exciting fiction about a psychopathic killer in a high-rise apartment building is still fiction, even though the villain closely resembles your Uncle Harry in appearance and characteristics. Writing what you know is about realistic exposition and characterization. It’s about natural voice and dialogue. The more knowledgeable you are about your characters and your settings, the more believable your story will be for your reader. Mark Twain could not have made Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer come to life if he hadn’t walked in their shoes.