In one of the writer’s groups I’m part of, they were recently having a debate about the old writing adage ‘write what you know’. There was a surprising amount of differing opinions on this, people taking it literally, people suggesting a more abstract meaning. I’ve never really been that tied up about writing what I know in a specific literal sense, but I also don’t think that’s the intended meaning of that statement. Write what you know does not mean, literally, write what you know.
If the intention was to take this in its literal sense, how many great science fiction and fantasy stories would never have taken form? Some things, you can’t know, but again, that’s not the intended meaning of that sentiment. The intention is to highlight the importance of honesty in your work, of writing from the heart – and not necessarily your heart, but the heart of the characters in the story you’ve created. When writing, you are beholden to the honesty of the story you’re presenting. If a character does something, you have to know why he or she did it. It can’t be that you need a plot device, you can’t have things happening at random, that’s simply not real. That is the essence of ‘write what you know’, that you write with honesty and remain true to the characters as you know them. As they would be in the reality of the world you’ve created.
For instance, you need to know all the traits and history of your characters. You need to know that your main character was raised mostly by his mother, that his father never knew how to deal with him, that he took longer than normal to speak clearly because he didn’t feel confident around the other kids. That his first love never even looked at him, that he was intimidated by male teachers because of his absent father, that he was easily lured into trouble by peer pressure. That he didn’t want to go into the abandoned house, but the kids made him do it, then rode off on him, and left him scared and distressed when the police came.
This sort of summary, a basic rundown of the general moments in a character’s life, these details might never come up in your story, but they are the elements that will lead you to knowing and understanding how he will react in all situations. Now you know, no matter where you take the story, that the character is intimidated by older men. Maybe that’s a key plot element, maybe not. The point is, this is something you know, you’ve come to know this through your character development.
Normally I work in the opposite direction – I think of the major plot points then work backwards through the character’s history to understand what would have made him take the actions he/she did in order drive the story – but by doing that, as the story develops, the characters start to take on a life of their own, as you know all the things that have happened to them. You know how they’d react if this or that happened. Because you know them. They’re real, not plot devices. Ideally, you’d have this depth of knowledge with every significant character in your story.
The important thing to note about ‘write what you know’ is it’s not about what you know. It’s about what you need to know. You need to research, plot and learn your characters so you can know the information you need to communicate your story in an authentic and believable way. You need to be honest to the story, honest to each scene and each interaction – because people can sense fake a mile off. If your characters are inconsistent, that will jar in the reader’s mind. You need to be real, to see the scene in its reality, then present it in its truest form.
You can’t know what the scene would be like in the wake of a nuclear bomb blast. But you can research and know the detail of nuclear winter. You know what winter is like, you know what smoke and haze can be like. Based on what you’ve read and learned – on what you know – you can imagine the reality. Now feel it. Now write it down. That’s the essence of ‘write what you know’.
It should probably be slightly extended:
‘Write what you know, learn what you don’t’
And there’s never any limit on what you can learn.