Write what you know is good advice, if you do it correctly.
We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “Write what you know, write what you know…” It’s practically a mantra in some writing circles.
So, should a lawyer only write legal thrillers?
A doctor only write medical dramas?
A plumber write a novel about a plumber?
No! That’s not what it means at all.
Write what you know refers to genre. It could just as easily be “Write what you read.”
After all, do you really think J.K. Rowling was a boy wizard, or Stephen King a miserable high-school girl with psychic powers? And if you think it only applies to fantasy/sci-fi/horror, etc., do you really think Tom Clancy was a submarine captain, or Bill Neary a Catholic priest treating lepers in Hawaii?
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What Write What You Know Can Mean:
- Genre. Write the genre you read because you know it best — plot twists, pacing, action. If you read it, you should know what the readers want.
- Setting. You can make up a setting, but having details of real places can make them come alive, both to those who already live there and those who want to visit. Accuracy helps, but knowledge of setting doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember, Robert Louis Stevenson set The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London to help sales, but the streets he described were in Edinburgh because it made the story better. Use your knowledge of a setting that makes the story work.
- Characters. Characters can be based on people you know. Their traits and idiosyncrasies can make you characters appear more real.
- Voice. You may start out imitating another author’s voice because it’s one you know, but eventually there’s one voice you should know above all else. Find out what makes you unique and original and a solid storyteller, and apply that to your story.
So, write what you know doesn’t always need the strictest interpretation. Yes, a lawyer might create more realistic legal jargon, or a doctor might create a better scene in the operating room. If you live in New York or Paris or Dubuque you may do a better job capturing the setting than an outsider, but everything, from your character’s career to setting, time period, and dialect can be researched.
A native may have advantages, but with diligence, you can make up the difference. But the only way to write a compelling romance novel, fantasy tale, children’s book, etc., is to read them. Know what readers expect in their story. Study the craft, learn what works and what doesn’t, and then begin to write. Don’t do it the other way. You can experiment with style and voice and word choice and all that, but if you don’t write what you know, there’s a good chance you’ll write it wrong, or flat, or improperly, and that means starting over.
When someone says, as they always do, “Write what you know,” do it, but do it your way, because what you know in the real world can make your writing better.
This guest post was contributed by John Briggs. John has been a writer for nearly 20 years, starting out in newspapers and eventually spent several years as a nationally syndicated children’s TV critic. His book, Leaping Lemmings, is coming out Sept 6th, 2016.
Wonderful thought there.
I heard this, excuse my French, crap, years ago. How would I even know about what genre or subject I knew back then? I just knew that I always loved writing, from the time I was a kid and I wrote a story that talked about with a published author and teacher.
I think this is the only reasonable interpretation of this common advice. There wouldn’t be much space opera or high fantasy if everyone followed the “letter of the law” on this one. Very few of us have served in the space marines or worked the dwarven mines.
All we really need to do is draw on our own experiences when it makes sense, to add verisimilitude to our stories.
Or, reject this advice entirely and write what you don’t know, write what you can imagine. But, if you write about something actual, something that exists in the real world, research the hell out of it.
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I enjoy reading authors who set their stories in specific, little-known locations. It shows that they really know these places, which makes for more authentic, realistic writing.