Everybody says ‘Write what you know’, but what does that mean? Read our post on why you shouldn’t only write what you know.
Writing what you know is great. Well, it’s great if you’re great. But, chances are you haven’t climbed tall mountains or saved children from a burning building.
Chances are you aren’t a hero in a half shell, or a magic boy with a scar, or the best detective London has ever seen.
The way I see it, people who take advice a bit too far end up here:
Publisher: ‘So what’s your book about?’
Author: ‘Well you know what they say. “Write what you know.” So I did.’
Publisher: ‘Oh, and so what is the book about?’
Author: ‘It’s about a 32 year-old-man who never goes anywhere, watching streaming services from his couch. Actually, all my characters are. Is that a problem?’
Now, I could talk all day about my draft of Man Does Nothing At Home, but strangely people always have places to be when I do.
On the other hand, the very same people seem to have endless time to talk about improbably good detectives or magic space wizards with laser swords.
Seriously – What Does Write What You Know Mean?
When authors say this, they don’t mean it literally. That’s why Chewbacca is a space dog who can’t speak, and not a man named George.
What they do mean is that there should be a spark of truth to whatever you are writing.
- For example, Arthur C Clarke wrote a lot of nonsense about space, but he was also a tremendously knowledgeable amateur scientist. He would pepper his books with his knowledge in order to give them a veneer of authenticity. He was often so convincing that real scientists named their discoveries after him because he wrote about it first. But, he didn’t know it was real; it was just a good guess.
- Tolkien used his wealth of knowledge about Norse Myths and English Folklore to enhance the fictional reality of Middle Earth.
- TV shows like Lucifer and Supernatural only work because they draw on real world myths and religious references.
What Does It Mean? In this case, writing what you know is just writing about something you are knowledgeable about. Maybe, just making some well-informed guesses is good enough for most of us.
Writing About Emotion – Why Age Matters
You often find that writers improve with age. This is not only due to practice, but also because you have had the opportunity to experience more.
It’s difficult to write about loss at a young age, or about fear when you have lived a safe life.
That’s not to say it’s impossible, but you need a good imagination and lots of reference material.
A fact any teacher or parent can attest to is that children are taught empathy, but are born natural monsters. Age develops the ability of an author to imagine the minds of others. And so, their ability to create characters improves with age.
What Does It Mean? In this case, it means that experience makes writing about certain topics easier or at least more believable. There are topics and things that are impossible for a living human to experience. For these, you should not let not ‘knowing’ about it stop you from writing about it. Magic, death, and aliens are just some examples.
On The Other Hand
My favourite genre is mundane fantasy. This is when someone turns a fantastical thing into something commonplace.
To do this, you take a thing you know and add something wild.
- Office Job + Aliens = People Of Earth – The TV show, People of Earth imagines space aliens as office workers and conquering Earth as just another job that they have to tick off in order to clock out for the day.
- Crime Drama + Fantasy World = The Watch – See almost everything Terry Pratchett wrote for further reference. For example, his Watch series (not the awful TV show), is largely about modern police work, but the ‘ethnicity hires’ are werewolves, trolls, and other traditional monsters. Aside from the fantasy elements, you can see how the story is just a crime drama with a ‘diversity’ sub-plot. I’m sure you can watch any popular police show and find that element somewhere in the mix.
Why You Shouldn’t Only Write What You Know
All this is to say don’t just write what you know. Write what you know – and then enhance it with your imagination.
Perhaps, more importantly, write what you know will interest you and other people. After all, 95% of what I know is boring stuff. It’s all how to cook, drive, write code, or wash clothing. Who cares if I never mention any of this in my novel? Notice how people almost never eat or use the bathroom in stories.
What your reader wants is something new. Something that they can’t find at home. They will forgive you the unreality of your writing every now and then if what you are writing is entertaining and interesting.
I mean I never cared that my four favourite childhood characters had shells and lived in a sewer with their ninja master rat father. Did you?
Top Tip: Learn how to write fantasy with The Fantasy Workbook
More Posts From Christopher:
- A Quick-Start Guide To Writing Fantasy
- Writers Talk 10 | Creativity & Imagination
- Writers Talk 9 | Journey To The West
- The Way Of The One – For Writers
- Fictional Languages: The Good, The Bad, & The Lazy
- 4 Things Writers Can Learn From Star Wars
- 5 Books I Think You Should Buy On World Book Day