Write What You (don’t) Know
Write what you know…
~Some Anonymous Jerk
If you’re a writer, you’ve heard it before. We all have - though no one will claim credit for having told it to us.
But what does that even mean?
Those links have a thing or two to say about that – perhaps more eloquently than I will say it here. But the short answer: not a whole heck of a lot – without a lot more context.
Let’s break it down. What do I know? I know about being in school. I know about being a big brother. I know what it’s like to sit in front of a computer for eight or nine or ten hours a day wishing it were displaying something more interesting than a spreadsheet. I know what it’s like to pine to be a writer. I’ve more recently started learning what it’s like to be a husband, and more recently still a father.
But in the grand scheme of things, writing what I know doesn’t leave a lot of room for gripping tales. Most of my life has been pretty short on gripping. For many of us writers and aspiring authors, that’s true. Which is to say, I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed on the blogs of many other writers. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy my life – nor that any other writer enjoys theirs – but there’s a general lack of gripping drama and epic adventure in my day-to-day activities.
And what is it I don’t know? Well, I don’t know how to do magic. I don’t know what it’s like to go on a globe-trotting adventure to save the world from utter destruction. I don’t know what it’s like to face a dark lord in mortal combat. I don’t know what it’s like to save my true love from the clutches of an evil villain (or even from an overly smooth Don Juan). I don’t know what it’s like to grapple with and control powerful cosmic forces. I don’t know what it’s like to hold the balance of another person’s life in my hands. I don’t know what it’s like to descend into the depths of depravity nor the bowels of hell. I don’t know what it’s like living in a war zone. I don’t know what it’s like on the battlefield. I don’t know what it’s like to face the fury of nature. I don’t know what it’s like to hunt down a loved one’s killer. I don’t know what it’s like to overcome all odds to achieve my greatest desires in life (though I’m trying). I don’t know what it’s like to meet sentient beings of another species. I don’t know what it’s like to see things no one else has seen and explore places no one else has been. In short, I don’t know what it’s like to experience the kind of drama and conflict that make for great stories. There are some people who do know what some of these things are like. Some of them are even writers. But for the rest of us… if we stick to writing what we know, we’ve pretty much cut out all the great stories from our writing repertoires.
That is… if we stick to things we know through first hand experience.
Of course, there’s a whole world of things we can know about by reading about it. Most of my examples above come from the speculative fiction genres – though many of them have parallels in mainstream fiction. I can have many of these experiences in the confines of a book.
Similarly, there are topics about which I know little, but about which there is a wealth of information both on the internet or available at the local library. Some things have to be experienced to be fully understood, but most of what we might need to “know” we can learn by educating ourselves.
And that’s what this advice really means: “If you’re writing about something you don’t know, take the opportunity to educate yourself, because readers who do know will call you out on your ignorance if you don’t.”
In many cases, if you’re a speculative fiction writer, you’ll find that what you’re writing about are characters in a world that is wholly from your imagination. So writing what you know means making it up. But whenever what y0u’re writing touches on an established world – including any intersections with the real world – you’re going to have to do some research to get the details right.
Or not. Because you can always throw caution to the wind and say to yourself “This thing about which I know little or nothing is an unimportant detail in the overall plot of what I’m writing, and I’m unconcerned about what those who know it better than I think, so I’m just going to gloss over it.”
Because ultimately what you’re writing is yours; it’s your story. And it’s what you do know that’s going to be most important in what you write. Like it or not, your feelings, your emotions, your memories and experiences, your outlook on life, your beliefs and your dreams, your hopes and your fears, your happy memories and your regrets - these are the things that will suffuse your writing. That’s what you’re really writing about. And that’s the well that you’ll need to tap into if you want to write well, and if you want to write what you know. Good writing, true writing will always reveal something to your reader about who you are, deep down inside.
That’s true whether you’re taking your readers on an adventure in a mythical fantasy landscape, or on a journey across the universe in a starship, or to the front lines of history’s most famous battles, or to the palaces of kings and rulers, or to the intimate memories of your youth, or to a quiet house in a quiet neighborhood where one would think nothing dramatic has ever happened.