Write What You Know

Posted on February 4, 2010. Filed under: Books, Fantasy, My Writing, writing | Tags: , , , , , |

Pen

It’s a simple piece of advice echoed in thousands of ways. “Write what you know.” That’s what I’ve heard, read, and seen in people’s writing over the years. And it’s the single piece of advice I’ve heard most from others who write.

So I have a question.

How many writers actually do this?

Yes, of course, I understand there are elements of truth in all fiction. That’s quite obvious. And I know writers tend to put a little bit of themselves into what they write. That’s one of the reasons so many authors are passionate about what they do.

But if you take apart the elements of the story, how much of what authors write do they actually know?

Since I’m asking the question, I’ll use myself as the example. (It works well considering I don’t want to make claims on another author’s behalf.)

For NaNoWriMo, I planned, outlined, and wrote a majority of a fantasy novel. Like most fantasies, my novel was written entirely in a made-up world. The countries I created were not based off the United States in any real way. Nor was the continent based off North America (though I could certainly argue that my inclusion of three countries within my continent is similar to N.A.).

My fantasy elements are all based off elements in nature, so perhaps I’m writing what I know there. However, instead of using a typical four-element society, I dreamed big and wrote a ten-element society, which I’m still getting the hang of.

For the most part, my fantasy world is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I’ve never experienced a world where the most advanced form of transportation is through horse-drawn carriages, nor have I experienced a journey through a wild forest on foot that lasts more than a day.

I don’t know what it would be like to wield an element in nature, nor the extent to which a person would have to practice in order to control that element. And I don’t know what it’s like to watch a very close friend tortured to death.

These are just a few of the elements I’ve thrown into my world. Now I’m not trying to generate interest in my novel; I’m just explaining why I wonder how much writers actually know about the worlds they write in.

I do understand some of my world, for sure. My characters have become my friends, and I understand and know them. I know the friendships and relationships I’ve created, and I see the web I’ve weaved to tie them all together.

And as a great portion of what I write is in some way, shape, or form loosely based on others’ works that I’ve read or watched, I know those things, too. But it makes little sense to me to claim that I’m writing what I know.

I’m curious. Are there any other writers out there who have similar problems? And is it related more to the experience the author has? I’m relatively new to the art of writing a novel as this is the first one I plan to finish. So maybe I just don’t understand because I haven’t really been there yet.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear others’ perspectives. Let me know what you think.

-Rae-

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9 Responses to “Write What You Know”

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It is funny you posted this today. I was going to post something similar in regards to fanfiction writers trying to write child death from a parents perspective and being so freaking offensive in it.

I write what I know EMOTION wise. Not in the literal sense. I write many stories with male/male love and as I am a bisexual woman I don’t know male/male love. However I know how I felt when I got my first crush on a girl, I know the crushing fear of trying to tell my loved ones that I was attracted to a female. I know fear, love, pain, agony, happiness. I KNOW these emotions so I write these emotions.

I think that’s what they mean when ‘Write what you know’ if you live a happy and content life and have never tried to commit suicide, it would be very hard for you to write from the view of a chronic depressive teen who cut or wanted to slit her wrists. If you’ve never felt the emotions from a pregnancy it’s very hard to capture the look of awe on a mother’s face when she FINALLY for the first time felt her unborn child move within her.

Ok lol I’ve rambled on long enough

I see what you mean. And, you’re right; it’s much easier to write about emotions you’ve experienced. (Perhaps that’s why my main character has a tendency not to be overly emotional until the emotions overwhelm her! Haha.) But at the same time, one of the best tools in the writer’s box is the ability to depict a range of emotions. I think there are some liberties taken there, quite obviously, but it’s only human to experience a wide range of feelings, so writers need to describe them.

I typically write things that I know, even if it is in a fantasy world, I guess. My story doesn’t include any parents as main characters because I’ve never been a parent. It has little in the way of romance (now) because I’ve never been in a romantic relationship. I do write of the agony of watching a death happen, and I probably do it little justice as, once again, I’ve never experienced it. But in the interest of keeping my characters human, I’m trying to imagine things like this and see how they would affect me.

In the interest of keeping this short, I’ll just add that it probably helps writers to be well read because they not only have their own arsenal of experiences to choose from but also a good knowledge base of how to go about depicting things they’re not as experienced with.

Just the other day, I was thinking about this. In the end, I decided that if I research a topic in depth, then eventually I come to “know it” to some degree. If I study a certain “type” of person at great length, then eventually I might be able to imagine what my character would do or say.

Example: mass murderer. I’m not a mass murder, nor have I ever met one. (to the best of my knowledge) But if I study the psychological make-up of several psychos, I could begin to write about it.

As far as fantasy goes, I think you ARE writing what you know. After all, who knows more about the imaginary world that you see in your head?

I haven’t branched out into any writing that isn’t already in my history. I admire you guys who are pushing the envelope. Challenging the rest of us.

I hadn’t really thought of it that way… but I guess you’re right. No one knows the world of Ezer Kenegdo like I do because it’s all mine. My characters are mine to the extent that I’ve developed them and know their reactions, thoughts, emotions, and actions. As I write more, it becomes easier instead of harder to see how things will affect them. So perhaps you are correct: I am writing what I know.

As far as admiring other-world writers, I’m pleasantly surprised to hear it. I’ve heard a lot of people remark that it’s easy to make up your own world; it’s harder to write about this one. Who knows? I’ll have a better idea of it when I’ve tried it, but for now, I just honestly want to finish my almost completed rough draft.

Thanks for your comment! I enjoyed reading it!

Rae off topic but I was inspired by your questions. And wrote a blog introducing everyone I ramble about in my blog!
http://2feetonearth1inthestars.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/who-are-the-people-i-ramble-about-in-my-blog/

LOL! ENJOY!

I agree with the first commenter. If you understand emotion, you can write about anything and make a reader feel it and believe it.

Writing what you know in the more narrow sense . . . I’m mixed.

If we only wrote what we know, literature would be very boring. But yet, it’s a decent bit of advice for beginning writers.

This is my experience writing: I spent years writing stuff that sounded just like my favorite writers (only, you know, not as good). I then started a highly autobiographical novel. It came out of my quarter life crisis, when I was fresh out of college, had nothing resembling a career and was terrified that I would never be a real adult. Funny, but once I wrote that, I was able to move on to more original works.

Other writers -James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald- began their writing careers with semi-autobiographical novels. This gave me a theory that you have to write about yourself before you can write about other situations.

I’ll admit it’s a lopsided theory. Some people write only mysteries or only romance novels or only sci-fi. Genre writers must have their own rite of passage before they can start producing really good work. As a fantasy writer, you’ll find your own path, and it’ll be very different from mine.

I find myself writing my characters experiencing what I’d imagine myself feeling in similar situations, except that my characters are super heroes, quasizombies, or whatever. 🙂

I *think* that it was Stephen King that said that ‘write what you know’ means drawing on your own experience even in other situations. The example given was a plumber. Writing a novel about a plumber might not sound interesting, and if he wants to write scifi he’s obviously never experienced space travel. But he could still write about being a plumber in space, and it would be good.

I just came across an episode of ‘Writing Excuses’ where they talked about this, especially if you write about epic fantasy. The general idea that one of the speakers said was that if you read a lot of fantasy, you know the genre well, you know its stereotypes, you know what’s common and not, you know that type of fiction really well…so you write what you know. But if you read nothing but crime dramas and then delve into high fantasy, you don’t really know the genre that well.

When I heard that podcast, I immediately thought of this post. 🙂

Ohhh, that’s a great point! Thanks for sharing! 😀


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