Don’t Write What You Know

Anyone who’s ever turned their hand to writing knows this this adage, as well as most who haven’t. “Write what you know.” There are many great writers who have followed this advice. Charles Dickens, for instance. Nearly all of his stories had autobiographical elements, and most of them took place in the nineteenth century London where he lived out his life. Or L. M. Montgomery. She wrote of Prince Edward Island, her world, and the people and dynamics of a small town in her era.

But what about Isaac Asimov? Sure he knew science, but how much personal experience did he have in a robotocized society? Or J. R. R. Tolkien? How many years did he spend in Middle Earth, exactly? How many Hobbits had he come across?

As I heard one writer say once, “If we can really only write what we know, we should be very concerned about the number of murder stories that are out there!” This lady’s solution to the problem was to instead, “Write what you can learn enough about to write of intelligently.” There’s good sense in this. But I think we can dig a little deeper.

You can learn about anything. The internet takes care of that. Want to write a story about an insurance company, but have no experience working for or closely with one? The internet has all your answers. Have a story set in New Zealand, but never visited and aren’t close to anyone there? Google is your friend. Your next masterpiece involves brilliant doctors, nuclear weapons, and Arthurian legend? Wikipedia is the source of all knowledge (at least knowledge good enough for fiction).

It’s not hard to come to know enough about anything to write about it. But I think the “write what you know” saying didn’t arise just because people didn’t have the internet at that time. There’s something more to it.

Anyone can write about anything, but only you can write about things that have happened to you. That doesn’t mean the student can only write about college and the farmer can only write about cows, but it does mean that there should be select details you pull from your life and drop into your story to add that little touch of realism that imagination can’t provide you with.

Here’s an example. I can’t sleep with a clock in my bedroom. I’ve never been able to. If I have an analog clock present, the ticking distracts me and I can’t stop thinking of music that fits the beat. If there’s a digital clock nearby, the numbers distract me and I can’t stop trying to work them into mathematical equations. (OCD much?)

So I took this odd factoid and dropped it into my story about surrogate motherhood. I’ve never been a surrogate mother. I’m not close to anyone who has been. All my knowledge about the subject came from websites, news stories, and my own imagination. But I put the can’t-sleep-with-a-clock detail into the story. Along with some other little things I’ve done and experienced. Thus, this woman who I can’t relate with when it comes to her job, lifestyle, or experience–I can relate with because of certain quirks and tendencies that are cut from the truth of my life.

I try to do the same in all my stories. I may not have dealt with a medical Implant that can cure all ills, but I know how I react physically when I’m angry, so I gave Gordon some of those characteristics. I may not live on a starship, but I understand how it feels to be loyal to your father and yet have the tension of not always agreeing. And I definitely haven’t worked hard hours in a sadistic coal mine, but I’ve felt what it’s like to be weighed down with guilt and feel you deserve something that’s not yours to bear. These are details, feelings, just little wisps of life, but when I blow them into a story, they can breathe a life into it that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

So no, don’t write what you know. Write what you imagine.

Then connect the dots with what you know intimately and personally.

The things that no one else shares.

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