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, “Write what you know” 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?
I know some writers lean heavily on their life or work experience to lend a story an extra layer of authenticity. For most of us though, this isn’t an option. Our imagination has to pick up the slack, fill in the blanks and, if all else fails, we 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 take notes and highlight 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 discovered just how important a persons body language is in conveying a given emotion. If we then use those cues and mannerisms in our own writing, we provide our work with more depth and accuracy and ultimately a more engaging narrative.
You see, 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 a vital skill 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. In essence, writing what we know, becomes writing what we see, what we feel and what we understand.
I’m not sure how everyone else accomplishes this, but my approach leans heavily towards imagining how I would react in a given situation and mimicking the gestures I wish to describe. I’m lucky I get to do this shut away in my office, where no one else can see the kind of crazy person I’ve morphed into.
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 write what you see and feel in the world around you?