Writing Wednesday: Why you shouldn’t “write what you know”
Why you should say NO! to “write what you know”, that age old piece of advice.
We’re not sure who originally said this. Some say it was Mark Twain:
But this is highly apocryphal. It could just have easily have been Chaucer:
Or the woman in this stock photograph (who is feeding her dog ice cream off screen):
And unattributable, cliched, advice is usually not the best. Here’s why:
Most of us know very little.
At the time of writing this, I am a 23-year-old man. I know nothing about being a 40-year-old woman in sub-Roman Britain. But that was the character that could best tell the story I wanted to tell, but if I had to stick to writing what I know, I’d have to abandon that character, and that setting. Instead, you’d have a novel about a 23-year-old, white, Irishman studying for a PhD in Belfast. And even then, my experiences are not universal.
And often what we know is boring.
People love stories that are outlandish, silly, and quite a departure from reality. Because that’s what people are buying – a little mini vacation in their head. The realistic gritty novels that get critical acclaim are often poor sellers, while the most fantastical stories break records. Because, at the end of the day, people want escapism. How many people live the explicit and exciting life of Christian Grey (very few, I’d wager) or the thrilling magical quest that is Harry Potter (nobody…that we know of)? The truly exciting stuff happens in our imaginations, not our lives.
Very few of us love what we know.
As a fan of Arthurian myths, I love them, and it was a pleasure to write about them. That pleasure and passion is what sees a story through from start to finish. I’d have nodded off writing the first few pages of a story about a 23-year-old, white, Irishman studying for a PhD in Belfast, no matter how important the story I had to tell was.
I think the advice is mostly misunderstood.
Whoever came up with this advice has been, I think, misconstrued across the years. I think what they are encouraging you to do is to filter your story through the perspective of your own experiences. Display how people react to situations – the way people consistently surprise you, or fail to do so.
Instead of writing what you know, do good research. Do you want to write about a 40-year-old woman in sub-Roman Britain? Study the Arthurian myths. Get a book on life in sub-Roman Britain. Read about historical attitudes of women, and the contemporary attitudes towards them. Observe a 40-year-old woman, and ask her about what’s going on in her head.
How many people who’ve written detective stories have never been a detective? I’m pretty sure piracy is illegal, so any modern pirate romances are clearly not the author’s own experience. To write a good story, take the fundamental truths of your life – love, loss, happiness, the eternal quest for fulfilment and purpose – and inject in into a roaring romp in another place and time.
Anywhere but where you can see out your window right now.