“Write what you know.”
If you’re a fiction writer, you’ve heard this advice before. It seems straight forward, but if you take a closer look, you’ll find it’s quite an ambiguous statement. Almost every person who tells you to “write what you know” has a different interpretation of its meaning. As a result, it could be the most helpful or most hurtful advice for a writer to hear. I’m going to share with you my interpretation of “write what you know,” so you can use this small phrase of advice to truly benefit your writing rather than hinder it.
First off, “write what you know” does not mean, write only about events you have experienced in your life. This is one of the biggest misconceptions paired with the phrase “write what you know.” It leads to writers only writing about themselves and their lives. Because writing about your experiences seems easy, right? You don’t have to do work researching, and it happened, so it must be believable and interesting, right? Wrong. Just because something happened to you, does not make it interesting to an outside reader. Also, just because it happened, doesn’t even make it believable because in order for it to be believable, you have to execute it well. One time in a workshop, every time we pointed out a plot discrepancy in a classmate’s story she would counter back “but this actually happened to me.” But that didn’t matter. It didn’t come across as true on the page because of how she recreated the event. Most importantly, if you want to push yourself to publish more than one work of fiction, your readers will quickly realize if your main character is the same recreation of you, set in your home town, doing your job. If you want to write fiction, write fiction, not an autobiography.
So, how do you write believable fiction you know about? “Write what you know” can entail research. Just because you don’t have first hand experience, second hand knowledge still counts as “knowing” something. If you want to set your story in a place you’ve never been, visit there, look up pictures, and interview people who have. If you want to write about an amish person, get out there and interview them. Read articles. Read books. Just because you write fiction, doesn’t mean you can’t research. In fact, you should research. This research allows you to take the first steps into seeing the world from someone else’s point of view, and it not only broadens your knowledge, but it will broaden your reader’s.
Along with doing research, “write what you know” means write what emotions you have experienced, rather than events. In other words, don’t write a love story if you’ve never been in love. You can channel emotions you’ve felt in your real life and put them into your characters. By doing this, your characters will feel like real people do. You may not have an alcoholic father, but if you know what it feels like to be unloved and neglected, then channel those feelings into the situation. As long as the emotions are believable, it shouldn’t matter if you’ve experienced it or not. If your emotional reading is accurate, your readers will feel with your characters. It’s empathy. Empathy is what drives good fiction.
Hopefully, with these three points, I’ve helped lift some of the restrictions writers put on themselves when they hear “write what you know.” In a nutshell, “write what you know” means make your writing truthful.