Based on the response I got to the last time I decided to look into common writing advice that is often poorly explained, I decided it would be a good idea to make this an ongoing series I come back to every now and then. So far, we’ve looked at the suggestion of “just write” and later, “show don’t tell.” Today, we’re going to take a look at one of the more common and equally inexplicable pieces of writing advice – “write what you know.”
Don’t Always Take it Literally
Taken at face value, writing only what you know would result in some incredibly boring stories. Most people don’t leave super interesting dramatic lives. Most people have never been a spy, or a soldier, or a warrior, or a wizard, or any other Dungeons and Dragons class. In fact, most writers are…writers, and would end up writing a lot of story about writers doing writer things. Sure, there are authors that worked in the profession they are writing about, but those are few and far between.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t write something based on your life. Most of us have done something interesting in their lives. I could write an entire book about having cancer, struggling with mental health issues, being bullied, the trials and tribulations of working customer service, or being a lifeguard over the summers. If you want to write realistic fiction, drawing from personal experiences like that is going to get you something that’s interesting.
However, real life is messy and unpredictable and lacks a clear narrative arc. People have struggles they overcome, but rarely direct antagonistic forces. People grow and change, but rarely with the clear progression of a story character. Even if you’re writing what you know, you still need to invent some things unless you’re writing nonfiction.
At its most reductive, literal meaning, “write what you know” would prevent a lot of interesting fiction from getting published. Tolkien never lived in a world with elves and dwarves and filthy hobbiteses. Lucas never flew the kessel run in less than twelve parsecs. King probably never was part of a group of misfit kids that had to contend with an evil shape shifting clown. Instead, as I hinted at above, what it really means is…
Extrapolate from what you know
This is what “write what you know” usually is supposed to mean. For example, I’ve never been a god tasked with ending the world – at least, not that I’ll admit to. When writing Weird Theology, however, what I did know was what it felt like to be suddenly in over your head, with a task you don’t feel adequately prepared for, surrounded by people that know more than you but still expect you to know things, wondering if I can even manage what’s in front of me.
I call it adulthood.
That really is the core of what it means to write what you know. Don’t stick only to exactly what you’ve been through, but take what you’ve been through and use it as a building block to make the character realistic and human. If you’re writing a science fiction story, don’t sweat that you have never been to space.
Instead, focus on how it impacts the characters, what experiences from your life you can draw on to make it feel realistic. You’ve never been to space, but you have probably been to new and wonderful places. You’ve never learned magic, but you have studied a new subject. While the end result is different, the process of getting there is similar enough to extrapolate.
Research what you don’t.
You know what the best part of writing what you know? If you don’t know something, you can research it and then you do.
This has been one of my favorite parts of writing Weird Theology. Going into the book, my knowledge of mythology was pretty much limited to the big three most people know – Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology. I’d heard of Ishtar, which is why she appears in the story, but outside of that I didn’t know much. Now I know about Babylonian, Canaanite, Pre-Judaic Semitic, Chinese, Japanese, West African, and I’m going to be learning about Hindu mythology next. Did you know there was a theory that the Aesir from Norse Mythology share an origin with the Asura of Hindu mythology? To quote Wikipedia:
Both words describe a family of divine beings, the Æsir is the pantheon of the principal Norse gods, and Asuras are a group of Hindu deities. Each group is set up against another group of gods; the Æsir warred with the Vanir, whereas the Asuras oppose the Devas….The relationship between the Æsir and Vanir parallel the Asuras and Devas in another way; like the Æsir, the Asuras were associated in Vedic myth with human phenomena (contracts, the arts, fate), while the Vanir, like the Devas, are associated with natural phenomena (such as Njord and Freyr, associated with fertility).
Learning that blew my mind. It works for pretty much everything, including people’s lives. We live in an era of unprecedented connectivity, and there are so many people sharing what it’s like to live their lives. While you should never steal someone’s story directly without their permission, you can easily find personal blogs by whatever profession you’re looking for information about. In a few hours, you’ll have a good feel what what it’s like. History books and reenactment actors cover a lot of what professions that are out of date are like, and futurist blogs and youtube videos will go into detail about possible future professions we may one day have.
Hope that helps you understand that particular writing rule better! Have one you want me to break down next? Let me know in the comments!