No matter what type of life you have lived, whether it be interesting or mundane; if you are a writer you have undoubtedly heard the phrase ‘write what you know’. Most writers have two reactions to this piece of advice, the first being: that is the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard, you need to read some fantasy; or yeah, that sounds pretty logical. Whichever camp you’re in, I’m going to tell you now… you’re not wrong. There I said it, I live in this magical place in between both of the camps. here in this utopian land we believe that yes, you should write what you know… but you should also write what you come to know. While I don’t think that write what you know is a very good piece of advice, I think the theory behind it (often left out of the advice) is something that every writer does naturally. Before anyone clicks out of this article in a fit of rage, let me explain myself.
As writers we pride ourselves on imagination, that’s our job. Without imagination our stories flop, we are uninteresting at best and interchangable with any other writer at worst. Many book ideas never come to fruition because of lack of imagination or lack of perseverance. So how can writers write what they know and still be capable of imagination? One of the most common arguments against writing what you know is the question: how can fantasy exist? Ah-ha, you… don’t have me there. I guarantee that in every piece of fiction that you have read, the author has written what they know. There are always elements of the real world, of everyday mundane life. This could be in the plant life, politics or people but every story needs a level of human. As writers, it is our job to make the story believable. That means entwining pieces of ordinary life that a reader can cling onto, this helps ground a story.
Chances are, you know the way that something smells or feels. You know what it’s like to experience rejection, heartache or bereavement. Being able to apply lifelike realities that will make the reader react to what you’re saying is vital. Forcing them to wrinkle their nose in disgust at the idea of a room smelling like urine, faecal matter and dried sweat would be much more effective than telling them that the room smelt really, really, really, really gross. Writing what we know is a way of expanding our writing and allows us to develop precision with our words that gets allows us to communicate effectively without confusion or misinterpritation. This allows the reader to relate to what the author is expressing. Do you remember the time you smelt the pee in an alleyway, or the way the bus smelt after a day of work? Writing with these kinds of details is so much more effective because it brings the reader back to a time and a place. It allows them to enter the scene and be a part of the story. Ultimately reading is about escapism, being a part of the story, and being able to visualize it. In my humble opinion, one of the most enjoyable and important aspects of storytelling is immersion. Without that, you’ve lost my interest, if I cannot relate to the emotions or story within your book, I will struggle to relate to your characters and what they are going through.
Immersion is interrupted when something is just too far-fetched, so how do we make our work credible? We give our worlds an ecosystem, characters that hold human or inhuman qualities, lifestyles that reflect or contrast our own. Essentially we write something for the reader to relate to. A reader must be able to associate with something they know in order to better understand what is happening. A strong writer will be able to create an atmosphere in which a reader feels a connection. Without a connection between the story and reality, a reader will disengage. If you want a reader to feel something significant you have to play on things they are likely to have experience with. You might have never been eaten alive, but you’ve probably broken a bone or scraped your knee or have felt a significant amount of pain at some point in your life. You’ve never murdered someone (hopefully) but you’ve definitely daydreamed about it. You’ve never been to Narnia, but you’ve walked through an enchanting forest and tried to talk to your pet. You’ve never lived in Chicago during the Divergent trilogy but you know that we are working our way towards genetic mutations. You never fell in love with your high school teacher, but you did think about it.
There are things about the ‘write what you know’ argument that annoy me… a lot, mainly self-inserts. I must write what I know therefore I must write about myself e.g. I am not a man, therefore I cannot write from a man’s point of view. If you only write what you know, your book might lose discovery and excitement. Being too restrictive will make your stories suffer. Expanding what you know is a vital part of writing, without it, your book runs the risk of being unbelievable, unintelligent and generally poorly written.
This is where research comes into play. If you do not know what you are talking about, research it. Don’t know how to hide a body? Risk your Google search history and go for it, want to know how to make a bomb? Need to know what an illness looks or feels like? What does a manager actually do every day? Research is your best friend! This is a mystical topic that most people struggle to identify as ‘expanding what you know’ the piece of advice that should be tagged onto write what you know. Of course there are things that aren’t going to be easy to explain in a satisfactory way, but a lot of mythology and previously written stories can be drawn on for inspiration.
J.R.R Tolkien invented creatures, this is a well-known fact, now they are everywhere. Tolkien however, got his inspiration from Celtic folklore and Norse mythology. He got inspiration from something and did research in order to make this a functional creature, he knew a lot about the creatures he imagined and in knowing a lot was able to introduce the reader to his fictitious invention. This gave us Hobbits that were inspired by the English working class and pixies in that they are honest, hardworking and very rarely seen (that last bit refers to the pixies, not the English working class). Chances are even if you are writing fantasy you will have to describe your creatures with human terms in order to help your reader understand what you are introducing. This is where writing what you know comes in handy, it helps fill in the blanks. When describing orcs in his books, Tolkien is very vague and sticks only to what the reader knows or has already been introduced to. “…they are squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” Here you have a fictitious creature, that a reader understands. The key being, that the reader understands.
Ultimately I’m not sure that this article will of convinced anyone in either camp, that there isn’t really a need for debate, but hopefully I’ve at least explained why there is a definite need to be able to write what you know and to be able to expand upon that knowledge. Simply put I don’t think this whole issue of whether you should or shouldn’t write what you know needs to be a question in the first place. We all already write what we know. Whether we realize it or not. The main question I think that stems from this is: should we be limited to write only what we personally experience? The answer to that is a resounding NO! Write what you don’t know, we need stories to inspire us and to take us into different worlds and different lives. More of the same doesn’t inspire anyone to read. Take risks with your writing, expand on our world or other worlds. Just don’t leave the reader behind, they want to come too.
I’d love to hear your opinions in the comment section down below! I know that there are no hard and fast rules to writing so if your experience is different from mine I’d love to learn about it!