They say a writer should write what they know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say this and it seems to be the most common piece of advice offered to all aspiring writers. But what does it mean? And does it help you become a better writer?
For a long time this piece of advice made little sense to me. How could a writer faithfully write what they know and at the same time compose stories full of mythical dragons and magic or homicidal serial killers? I get that a former police officer could go on to write some amazing crime thrillers, and a university history professor could write some incredible historical fiction, but this doesn’t exactly hold true for the teacher spending her free time writing about the zombie apocalypse…. Am I being too literal?
It’s highly possible some writers lean heavily on their life or work experience to lend a story an extra layer of authenticity, but, the more I think about it, I‘m convinced writing what you know refers less towards mining the depths of your previous profession and more towards your ability to dig into a rich and abundant well of emotions and lifelike character descriptions.
Being able to put ourselves in the minds of our chosen characters, imagine their facial expressions, their gestures and personality traits, their habits and actions / reactions is vital for anyone wishing to write a story worth reading. Your readers need to be able to “see” and relate to your characters, empathise with their situation and care what happens to them. To do this we need to provide them with authentic and believable descriptions and enough realism that they can relate and allow themselves to be pulled into the story.
I’m not sure how everyone else manages this, but my approach leans towards imagining how I would react in a given situation or mimicking gestures I wish to describe and feeling lucky I’m sat in my office where no one else can see the kind of crazy person I’ve morphed into.
I also study people and try to imagine what they might be thinking or saying. As a nurse, I got to see first hand how patients and their loved ones react in a hospital environment. As a mum, I watch my kids all the time and sometimes I sit on a bench at the park or near the library and watch people interacting with the world around them. It feels a little intrusive at times, but people fascinate me and I can’t help but wonder what thoughts are going through their heads at any given time.
Finally, if all else fails I turn to research for inspiration. The sources I’m primarily drawn to are books and films, but I’m not opposed to searching the internet for self-help articles and websites that focus on mental and emotional health. I’m forever making notes or highlighting passages in books that are either beautifully written or explain something in a way that allows me to grasp a level of emotion I’ve been unable to describe up until that point. In films I tend to dissect a scene that moves me in some way. By understanding what made the scene so powerful, I’ve been able to discern just how important a persons body language is in conveying a given emotion and then use those cues and mannerisms in my own writing. I can’t be certain, but I feel it provides my work with more depth and accuracy and ultimately a more engaging narrative.
So, that’s me and how I try to “Write what you know”. But what about you? Are you a former NASA astronaut writing about space travel or just a regular Jane trying to bring a reader to tears with the power of the words on your page…?