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Should You Write What You Know?

whatyouknow

One of the earliest pieces of advice I got when I was first starting to get serious about writing was that I should “write what I know.” This is advice that we’ve all gotten at some point or another, and at first we buy into it. I mean, it seems straight forward enough, right? Why would you write about something that you know absolutely nothing about? After all, isn’t the only way to create a believable, convincing fictional world that offers the reader some insight either into that world or into the world we live in is to actually know something about it?

But I quickly realized that things might not be as cut and dry, black and white, as I’d been led to believe. For starters, there are literally countless examples of writers who write about things that they *couldn’t* know anything about in any real way. Take anyone who writes in the fantasy or science fiction genre: those worlds, even the most grounded worlds, are complete separate from our own, with their own physical rules and laws that don’t exist in ours, no matter how much we may wish that they did (I’m *still* waiting for my Hogwarts letter. Man, those owls are slow). Another example would be historical fiction writers. Hilary Mantel wasn’t living in the time of Henry VIII, nor was Isabel Allende alive in 19th century Chile, and yet they’re writing stories set in these time periods. The same goes for anyone writing about characters who are doing professions other than their own or are in any way different from the writer: detectives, spies, pretty much any character in a romance novel, astronauts (assuming the book isn’t nonfiction), male protagonists being written by female writers, black characters being written by white writers, etc. The list goes on and on.

I *wish* this were something I knew firsthand.

I *wish* this were something I knew firsthand.

And you know what? A good portion of these stories are convincing. They’re believable. They transport me to an alien place during an alien time into an alien mind that for x number of pages I feel is my own. I see through the character or characters’ eyes and believe an owl is going to peck at my window with my Hogwarts letter, I believe that there are dragons in the world, I believe that I’m in Henry VIII’s court, I believe that I’m a MI6 spy/serial womanizer.  And this is due in large part to the fact that the stories and characters feel like they’re written by someone who knows everything there is to know about every facet of them, even though there’s absolutely no way that the writer could. So what gives?

They’ve done the legwork, for starters. The fantasy and science fiction writers have worked their butts off to create these believable worlds, mapping out the physical laws, the histories, even literally mapping out the geographical maps. If done right, these fictional worlds are just as complex as our own, even if they were just the product of someone’s imagination. The historical and other genre writers have also done their research, spending hours and hours in the library reading up on the history of the place they’re setting their story in, reading every personal account they can get on, every newspaper, every scrap of paper or website they can find, even interviewing people who were either alive at that time, lived in that area, or worked in that profession. They know this place, this time, this profession as well as they know their own.

research_word_in_dictionary_magnified_sepia

But the most important thing that they’re doing is that they *are* writing about what they know. No, they don’t know the setting or the time period or even the character’s profession firsthand, but they know the character because they know what it is to be human. They know how their character thinks, how their character feels, even the character’s verbal quirks and mannerisms because they’re human themselves and (some, anyway) spend a good amount of time with other humans. Maybe this is just me (and pretty much every other writer I’ve talked to), but there is always at least one aspect of my characters that I pull either from myself or from someone I know or have observed during a productive people watching session at the local cowboy themed dive bar (true story).

This is not to say that the characters are based 100% on the writer or someone the writer knows. Far from it, in fact: one of the protagonists in my novel is a middle aged man who works as a lawyer and is a psychopath. I am *nothing* like him, just like George R.R. Martin is nothing like his character, the blond teenage dragon queen Daenerys. But there are experiences that we all can empathize with that provide writers with an ample array of choices that allow us to write what we know even when we’re writing about a time or a place or even a type of person that we know nothing about. Eating a new food for the first time and discovering it is your new favorite; the fear and confusion that comes with being a teenager; falling in love. These experiences have been going on for years, sometimes even millennia, all around the world, and we understand them because we’ve experienced them or some variation of them firsthand. And if we haven’t, which hopefully is the case for some of the darker subject matters in literature, then we can still use our ability to empathize to get an idea of what these experiences would be like. The great writers do this, and they do this so effectively that you really believe that they’ve buried a child, or been to war, or murdered in cold blood.

Ah good old fashioned empathy mixed with arrows in the butt.

Ah good old fashioned empathy mixed with arrows in the butt.

So my answer to the question “Should you write what you know” is yes and no. No, you should not write about something you know if you don’t have an interesting story to tell and are just writing about it because you know it, nor should you write about something that you don’t know if you either aren’t willing to put in the necessary hours of research and work or if you suck at empathizing. But you *should* write about a character you know, with emotions that you know and thoughts that you know, or at the very least can effectively empathize with, because that is the difference between a great story and a bad one.

When it boils down to it, it really isn’t about what you know or what you don’t know, but rather what excites you. Instead of thinking of it as writing what you know versus what you do know, you should write about what you *want* to write about, what interests you, what you find yourself thinking about for hours in bed instead of sleeping, and you shouldn’t let the fact that you might not initially know anything about it hold you back.

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2 thoughts on “Should You Write What You Know?

  1. Estoy super encantada de haber accedido al post porque es justo lo que buscaba. Adems, me ha gustado tanto la forma de escribir la calidad y lo didctico que es el blog que lo muevo a marcadores ahora mismo si me acuerdo como hacerlo. Sinceramente muchas gracias por hacer rincones en la red como este, a quien sea que los haga!!

  2. (Primero, lo siento por mi español, yo sé es tan malo) Me alegro que te haya gustado este post! Por lo menos una persona que le gusta haha (otro que me, por supuesto haha). Si hay algo cual te gustaria para mí para escribiera, por favor digame! Siempre estoy en busca de sugerencias de contenido. Siempre estoy buscando por sugerencias de contenido 🙂

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