Thursday, June 4, 2009

Write What You Know

I posted this on another blog a few months ago, but this is a phrase that I've been running across again lately, so I thought I'd re-post it :)

“Write what you know” is one of the most often heard phrases in the writing world. When I began seriously writing, my first reaction to this bit of advice was, “Oh heck no. No one is going to tell me what to write!” I didn’t want to write what I knew. That would be boring. I wanted to explore new worlds and dive into old ones.

It didn’t make any sense to me because I was hearing it very literally. I kept thinking, “Well, if writers only wrote what they knew, we’d have no fantasy or scifi or historical novels.” I mean, unless people were out there falling in love with vampires or having their home planets overrun by meat-eating aliens, it just wasn’t possible to always write what you know.

What I finally realized was that the best writers really do write what they know. Now, does that mean Stephenie Meyer has recently run into a family of vegetarian, sparkling vampires? Or that J.K. Rowling once stumbled upon a whole community of magical kids running around undetected by all the muggles somewhere in Britain? Of course not! (Well, not that I’m aware of in any case).

So how do writers write what they know? They infuse their stories with all of the emotions, knowledge, and life that they’ve experienced and use all of it to build their characters and storyworlds into incredible books that suck their readers into a new reality. I’m willing to bet that Ms. Meyer has, at some point in her life, experienced fear and loss and that total exhilaration of first love. J.K. Rowling was certainly never a magical teenage boy fighting a weird, snake-looking wizard…but she probably knows what it feels like to be terrified, excited, helpless, alone…to find friends who love you, fight for something you want, and maybe have things turn out great in the end.

To write what you know, you need to write about something you care about, something that touches you. That connection you have to your subject will come through in your work.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut sums it up perfectly in our Quote for the Day:

Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about. It is the genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Agent Rachelle Gardner had a great post about writing what you know last year. In her opinion:

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don't write from the surface. Whether you're writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else... be real.

Don't reflect what you know from other people or the media... write what you know from your own inner life.

There is a more literal approach to the “write what you know” statement as well. It really is necessary to be familiar with your genre and the world of which you are writing. There are little quirks and “rules” to every genre – what works for a romance might not always work for a thriller.

Agent Scott Eagan posted about this in his blog a few months ago. He stated:

It is crucial for you to write in the niche that you know the best. By doing so, you understand the twists and turns to that genre that others might not get. More importantly, you understand the voice that is commonly associated with that genre.

This can also be an area when a little research can come in handy. If you are writing a book set in Ancient Greece, it is necessary for you to do enough research that you really know what you are talking about. Otherwise, you will never be able to truly transport your readers into the world you are trying to describe. Mary wrote a wonderful post about how familiarity breeds authenticity. You may not be able to personally experience the day Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, or what it is like to live beneath the ocean, but you can familiarize yourself enough with the pertinent details that you can convince your readers that your characters are living through those experiences.

This applies to the worlds you create yourself as well. Fantasy and science fiction writers create their own worlds, true. But there are certain rules even within the realms of fictional worlds. Maybe in your world, women have supernatural powers and men don’t. Or maybe blondes can see the future and brunettes can fly. You can make whatever rules you’d like for your universe, but you have to stick to them. And you have to have enough knowledge of that world to convince your reader that the experiences and emotions of your characters are authentic and appropriate for the world in which they live.

When you write a book, you want to suck your reader into your world – whether that world is set in the past, the present, the future, or on some other planet or reality…you need to know enough about that world, your characters, and the things they will feel and experience to draw your readers in. Using your own emotions and experiences, and your own specialized knowledge about the world you are creating, will help you craft an amazing story.

In other words, my dear writers…write what you know ;-)


quixotic said...

Great post. I like your breakdown and explanation of the old saying.

Suzanne said...

This phrase haunted me for YEARS. I first saw it in Stephen King's On Writing. And then last summer, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

For me, Write what you know, wasn't about me or mine... it was about what I like!!!!! I was always trying to write my own story, somehow... and I forgot that the stories I liked best were creepy and otherworldly and magical and deeply sad. Those are the stories I like to hear, read and watch. I never tried the dark side of writing and when I did, I got a book out of it. One out on full submission!

Thanks for the post! I think when we (writers) figure out that one simple truth, we find our author wings.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think a common misconception is that people think they need to know it from their real life. You can KNOW something through reading. You may know "Fantasy" because you are well-read in that genre. Someone who has not read any fantasy should not be trying to write it!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Oh, you clarified that so very well. I always finish that phrase off with '...and what you don't know, research well so it becomes something you do know."

That even goes for feelings. If you've never experienced the brokenness of death, ask friends (who have already gone through the grieving process and are ready to share) what ran through their thoughts at the time. How would they describe their feelings, etc. Get a good feel for how one does react and then you'll write it with more feeling yourself!

Great post!

K.M. Weiland said...

Thanks for sharing. This is something I firmly believe in. I have little to no interest in writing what I know. Churning out nothing but my own life experiences onto the page would be boring at best. But writing what you *don't* know doesn't mean you can't learn about it. Tapping into universal human experiences and researching like crazy are all it takes to turn what you don't know into what you do.

Anonymous said...

I like this. I write a lot about anxiety, facing fear, mental illness, tc...because it is an area I KNOW related to my day job. Nice!

Jeannette said...

I kind of just pretend that I know something... The truth is stranger than fiction, right? But I agree with your conclusion: it must be authentic. Enjoyed the post!