It’s as ubiquitous as “Show, don’t tell.” You probably can’t even remember the first time you heard it, it’s touted so widely – in advice books, in classrooms, in movies about writers. Even the most non-writiest nonwriter who hasn’t held a pen since high school knows to write what we know.
But what does that actually mean?
For the budding storyteller, it’s a good stepping stone for getting words on the page. Write what you understand, what you can easily talk about, what’s already in your repertoire. Not sure where to start? Start with your surroundings, your experiences. If you’re a hot dog vendor in NYC, write about being a hot dog vendor in NYC. If you’re a goat herder in the Swiss Alps, write about being a goat herder in the Swiss Alps. If you’re a collector of Japanese companion dolls, write about…. Er, maybe not that.
“BUT NOEL,” you cry. “What if I want to write about dragons?? I don’t know any dragons!”
Ahh, and here’s where “write what you know” gets more interesting, because it’s not as literal as that.
Writing what you know means taking what you understand and applying it to new scenarios. It means drawing from your experiences and emotions in order to project your imagination into unfamiliar terrains. You’ve probably never battled a dragon (and if you have, um, invite me next time, cuz that sounds fun), but you’ve certainly felt fear before. Adrenaline too. You’ve felt sweat drip down the bridge of your nose and the strain of your muscles when you lifted something heavy. (In real life, maybe it was a box. But in your story, it’s THE MYSTICAL SWORD OF ELL’THW’AAEEAA’APOSTROPHES.)
Your book can be spectacularly opposite of everything in your life, but if your character is human, then you can draw from your own knowledge and sense of empathy. In my first novel, the protag’s significant other has an affair. I’ve fortunately never had to endure that kind of betrayal, but I once went through a period where I was unsure whether my former boyfriend had feelings for another or not, so I tapped into all that remembered heartache.
Do you always have to write what you know and only what you know? Nope! The beauty of writing is your ability to imagine. As authors, we possess the gifts of time travel, shape-shifting, and telepathy. We can transform ourselves, place ourselves in others, imagine how they feel and think. We can say, “That’s never happened to me before, but oh man, what if it did??” That’s essentially storytelling, isn’t it? Envisioning the what-if.
If you don’t know it or can’t imagine it, you can find out. In this case, “write what you know” becomes “write what you want to know.” What are you curious about? What question throbs in your mind, seeking answers? I’m fascinated by neuroscience, and it was through studying brain tumors that I got the idea for my second novel. But I had no idea what the actual, gritty, living experience of having cancer was like, so I had to find out. I read a ton of testimonies and had a three-hour interview with a woman undergoing radiation treatment. My empathy deepened so much from that talk, and I thought about cancer in a much more personal way afterward. As my character lay in that MRI, I was able to transport myself into her situation with the help of that interview, plus my readings, plus my own imaginings. Where my imagination failed, my research kicked in, and where my research left off, my imagination filled the gaps. It all works together.
Tell me, what’s your take on the “write what you know” slogan?