Essential Writetip: Write What You Know!!

Posted: December 7, 2013 in Craft
Tags: , ,

This, for the most part, has been copied from my comment on Jodie Llewellyn’s blog, but I figured I’d make an actual post out of it and expand on it a little, because it is a worthy subject in and of itself.

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We often hear the people says “Write what you know!”, but what does that even mean?

A lot of time people dismiss this adage, because they’re consumed by the literal interpretation of the phrase.  They see “Write what you know!” and they think “Well, I’m 36 year old Dad with 3 kids, a mortgage, a happy marriage,… who wants to hear about that ??”, or they think “But I’m a science fiction writer… so it doesn’t apply to me. If I wrote what I know, I’d have to write about traffic jams and the grind of corporate 9 to 5!”.

This is where people get a little bit confused, and where it is that I’ll tell you wholeheartedly that everyone has to write what they know. What you need to understand is that there are different degrees of “writing what you know”.

Lets go through a few different examples of how someone might write what they know:

Let’s take the legal thriller writer, John Grisham as an example. John Grisham was a lawyer, right? So when John Grisham got into writing he wrote legal thrillers, and he did pretty well with them because he’s writing what knows and they come across very authentic with all the legalspeak and from having had actual experience in real life courtrooms.

That’s one example of “writing what you know”.  John used his actual real-life experiences as a sort of inspiration for his stories or to give his stories that edge of authenticity that they needed to sell well and to be a fantastic read.

If I was to use myself as an example:  I work in IT.  Because I work in IT and have an understanding of various technologies, I could probably think up some cool plausible technology that could be used in a sci-fi story. This would also be “writing what I know” even though I don’t live in the future and that tech doesn’t exist. I’m taking my personal experience and using it as an inspiration and to give my story authenticity.

Other examples of “writing what you know” relates to emotion and life experience. This is by far the most commonly overlooked by novice writers and, personally, I think we all do it but we do not necessarily know we’re doing it, or give it the credit it deserves if we do.

For example.. we’ve all experienced horror/terror/fear/guilt/shame/remorse/joy/bliss/etc.  This is part of our everyday experience in our lives as human beings with emotions and feelings.  We KNOW what these things are like. We KNOW how they feel and how they affect us, both emotionally and physiologically.  As an example, we know anger makes it hard to think, can make us irrational, can cloud our judgement. We know that physical feeling and the behaviours that comes with anger:  you might feel agitated, hot under the collar, you might clench your teeth or make fists with your hands, etc.

So how does this fit in with writing what you know?  When you, as a human being and as a writer, authentically capture the essence of these emotions and transpose them onto your characters in your stories, you really are “writing what you know”. This is particularly powerful when coupled with experiences the average person can relate to – death/loss/violence/family/school/injury/love/relationships/marriage/etc.

This is called “method acting” for writers, or “Talking from the wound”.  It is applicable in any kind of fiction of any genre.. from horror to literary fiction, from romance to science fiction.

The great thing about this method acting for writers is that it opens up vast vistas of creation for you. You might be a shy, badminton player with a rottweiler and a casual job flipping burgers but – using this skill, you can write a character who gets angry at a cheating lover and kills them, without ever having had to have picked up a knife and stabbed someone yourself.  What’s more you can make it really authentic for the reader if you appropriately transpose what you as a human being know about guilt/betrayal/loss/anger/fury/revenge onto your story and your characters. You dont have to be an actual murderer to write one, but to write a truly plausible murderer you’d still have to “write what you know”.  Similarly you wouldn’t need to have been in a war to write a story about warriors or soldiers in a war.

The list of possibilities that are opened up by this skill for writers is only as limited as your imagination and your willingness to truly dig deep and write what you *know*.

Get me?

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