There’s loads of writing advice batted at writers, packaged down into short, easy absolutes: Show don’t tell. Don’t use adverbs. Write drunk, edit sober. Never use semicolons. Don’t use “very.” And, of course, “write what you know.”
Let me tell you something about these hackneyed tidbits of “advice”: they are often misinterpreted. I believe the most common interpretation of “write what you know” is “write about your own life”. That can be very discouraging, because the average person does not lead a novel-worthy life–if I went with this interpretation, I would write about cats, dogs, gardening, writing, and libraries.
A more accurate tidbit of advice would be “use what you know” or “start with what you know.” No where in that four-word writing quip does it say “write ONLY what you know.”
Here’s the thing: You know a lot more than you think you do. You know pain, you know loss, you know anger, joy, happiness, confusion, stress. You know friendship and family, you know hunger and thirst, you know what it’s like to want something you cannot acquire.
That’s your base. Emotion is vital for any story. Maybe you’ve never had to watch your entire village get slaughtered or decide to let one person die to save twenty, but you have experienced strong emotions. Use those.
And here’s another fantastic thing about “what you know”: you can actively decide to change what you know. If you don’t know about something, find out. Do Your Goddamn Research.
Yes, there is such a thing as “creative liberty” and “author’s prerogative.” These are especially pertinent in scifi and fantasy. When you start engaging magic and setting things 500 years in the future on another planet, creative liberty and author’s prerogative become all the more powerful.
You have to have truth and fact and reality at the core before you can take liberties. There has to be a seed of relatable knowledge there to help you create the beautiful sprout of a novel you plan to write. Your characters should express true, believable emotions.
There’s a highly pertinent quote I’ve seen credited to Pablo Picasso: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” This applies to “write what you know” as well. Learn the facts like an expert so you can bend them for your novel.
But you have to start with what you know and be realistic. You have to start with that basis of truth, that honest emotion or basic fact. If you are writing something completely outside your realm of experience, sprinkle in pieces of what you know to lend a feeling of authenticity to your story–for example, I spent four years in college, so if I include a college campus as a setting, or a college professor as a character, I have plenty of knowledge I can use. Maybe the college campus is actually a huge summoning circle for the forces of evil, or the college professor is an alien. I don’t know anything about that from experience–but I do know the basics of dorm life, campus events, student attire, the kinds of conversation you might overhear on a campus, etc, and I can use that basis as a springboard for the rest of my idea to give it an authentic feel despite being about something utterly outside my realm of experience.
If you write an MC who has been raped or abused, who is instantly cured by falling in love with someone, you clearly have not put yourself in this MC’s position and bothered to lay down that foundation of truth, the kernel of realism from which your fiction can grow.
If you write a scifi novel and I read it and think, “Okay, this person has clearly never watched or read ANY scifi in their goddamn life,” then you’re doing something wrong.
No one expects you to become an expert on thermonuclear astrophysics overnight, but you should be doing research. You should have a list of resources you’ve consulted that you can go back to if you feel uncertain at any point. You should feel knowledgeable enough that if someone came to you and said, “Can you give me the basics on this topic?” you could spout off some knowledge and point them in the direction of some articles that you found helpful.
A writer’s job is to take threads of reality and weave them into something interesting, exciting, and entertaining. What you know–through research and experience–gives you the thread you need for your beautiful tapestry, but thread alone can’t make art. If you only “write what you know,” you’re basically just taking all those threads and hanging them up to flap in the breeze. Everyone will look at them and say “Huh, yeah, that’s thread all right.” If you don’t “write what you know” at all, you’re basically trying to weave a tapestry out of pure imagination. Everyone will look at your tapestry and go, “…oh. It’s uh… Very… uh, not really real.”
You have to use imagination AND thread to make a tapestry. What you know and what you don’t. “Write what you know” is good advice, as long as you know how to interpret it.
For some other perspectives on this misunderstood piece of writing advice, check out The Most Misunderstood Piece of Good Advice Ever and Write What You Know – Helpful Advice or Idle Cliche?
What do you guys think? Is this much-repeated advice actually any good? What other frequently-uttered writing advice do you think we’re all interpreting wrong?