Write What You Know.

Writing on notepad
Photo: Business of Software by Betsy Weber. CC BY 2.0

I was asked if I agree with the old adage ‘write what you know’. I grew up hearing that. It is what was taught through my high school years. It makes sense doesn’t it?
Write what you know.

As I reflected upon it though, I realised that in its purest and most logical form – I don’t agree with it at all. If I only wrote what I knew, then I’d be in very limited supply for story ideas.
I’ve never met a man cursed behind a mirror. (Shattered)
I’ve never lived the life of a Nephilim. (Nova)
Yet I’ve written about these things. Surely that is not writing what I know. I’m not writing things that I’ve experienced, at least not plot wise.

Taken as an elemental truth, then yes I agree with it.
I do know what it’s like to have the drive to help another in their cause, and resort to using skills in areas that bore me to tears, in doing it. (Shattered)
I do know what it’s like to go through a major change in life, thinking I was all alone through it, and finding out in hindsight that I was never alone, after all. (Nova)

I’ve met people and been in situations that tested me and changed me. It may not be the same arc my characters go through, but the experience behind it pulls it through. It’s kind of like acting I suppose. You may have never been in that situation before (don’t tell me Matt Damon has ever been an assassin) but in defining the character in a relatable way, doing research, talking to people who’ve ‘been there’ or ‘been close to there’, and bringing your own unique personality and ‘voice’ you tell the story. You bring to it ‘what you know’.

And ‘what you know’ is always changing. At thirty, you know things you didn’t know in high school and I’m not just talking about exam-passing knowledge either. Even though, along the way you do pick up a heck of a lot more ‘head knowledge’ too. At forty, you’ve gained more life experience and faced different challenges than your thirty-year-old self. And so on up the line of decades.

So in essence, I do agree with the old ‘write what you know’ adage, but not in its most logical and literal translation. It means that I can write a story about someone being in the Army even though I’ve never been there. Research, interviews, and listening to the life stories of others, mixed with the emotional and reactional experience of my own life and situation (what I know) can make for a great story.

So who knows, what I will know for the next book…you know?

3 thoughts on “Write What You Know.

  1. I agree with you. It’s right to write what you know, how can you ever write what you don’t know? But you can learn what you don’t knwo from reseraching as well as you can assum experience you never had (and will never have) by proximity to experience you do have.

    After all, stories exist to espand the reader/listener/viewer’s experience even in fields where those people will never go. It’s the same for the storyteller, in my opinion.

    I’d rather say, know what you don’t know, be aware of it, then do whatever it takes to tell that story 🙂

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