One of the oldest and most common bits of advice for aspiring writers is to ‘write what you know’. But what does that even mean? Does that mean I can only write my life story? Does anyone want to read that? Is that all I’m qualified to write?
Number one rule when using this technique: don’t limit yourself to writing what you know. Instead, incorporate what you know into your work and use it to enhance what your imagination gives you.
If I limited myself to only writing about what I know I’d only be writing about a peevish, female 21-year-old student in Australia drinking more tea than is strictly necessary rather than a male 20-something Russian bodyguard with anger issues and in an emotionally abusive relationship (Because I write the happys).
And yet, despite this discrepancy, I classify this as writing what I know.
As an aspiring writer, I could not have picked a better household to grow up in. While I was little, my mum studied and then later became a counsellor specialising in relationships. So while I grew up I was constantly exposed to theories and ideas about how people worked and how they function within relationships. I know just enough about it to comfortably armchair-psychology my way through most scenarios and also just enough to know when I need a little bit of help. My mum knows that when I call her for some help it’s just as likely to be me asking about how to roast a potato as me asking her about the reasons people stay in abusive relationships and the ways they act when they’re trying to hide the truth. So, in light of my background and my ready access to help whenever I get stuck, I tend to write stories based heavily in psychology and in understanding how people work.
So what are you interested in? What knowledge do you have that is uniquely yours? Too many people when told to write what they know immediately say that they know nothing, or at least nothing of interest. Not true times a million billion. Writing what you know can come in many forms. I’ve seen stories based around folklore, animals, flowers and pretty much anything you can think of (I once read a book about a librarian obsessed with classifying things with the Dewey Decimal system. Sadly, I no longer remember the title of the book). So what do you like? Is it music? Or numbers? Or dinosaurs? Doesn’t really matter. Use it to enhance your stories.
Even if you don’t have any hobbies or interests (…really?) you can still write what you know by looking at the people you interact with every day. One of the most powerful ways stories can speak to us is through strong, believable characters and you encounter those every day. What about the guy at the checkout who squints his eyes whenever he tries to remember something. Or the way your friend always overcompensates with enthusiasm every time she really doesn’t want to do something? What about the way other people deal with adversity? Hell, what about the way YOU deal with adversity? These are all things you can use to make your writing richer and more meaningful. People recognise truth in fiction and that’s what helps to give it its meaning.
And, of course, never forget that what you know is not a static property. You have the ability to learn and to not use that is simply a waste. Talk to people constantly and read widely. The people around you are the best sources of knowledge you could ever hope for so use them (but in a nice way. Maybe offer them a cup of coffee first?). I mentioned before that my mum is my go-to person when it comes to psychology but she’s not my only resource. My roommate is a crazy fountain of genera knowledge about everything. I have a cousin who’s a speech therapist and is constantly annoyed when books have two-year-olds who can string together a complete sentence. Not only can I borrow the knowledge of these people I also have the ability to use them as sounding boards. When I’ve written something that doesn’t sound right to me I send it off to the person I know has a little bit of knowledge in that field. Alternatively, if it’s something that’s completely random I send it to my friends who read unhealthy amounts. Because reading lots of books helps you to know when something is good and when something is a little off.
Reading is also a great way to give you a little more knowledge. I like reading non-fiction as much as I like fiction. I read essays, journal articles and books about whatever I happen to be interested in at the time. I also trawl the internet looking at Wikipedia, blogs and gleaning knowledge from comedy websites of all places. Knowledge is power and doing a little research can help to give your story an edge.
Above all else, write what you want to write and what you’re interested in. If you write something that you’d be interested in reading chances are someone else will be too. I write about the way people work because that interests me. I also write about humour in everyday situations because that tends to make me laugh more than pratfalls and ridiculous comedy. Because I’m interested in these things I know about them enough to give my writing some depth and honesty. I genuinely enjoy what I write and that comes through.
Writing what you know shouldn’t limit you to only what you’ve experienced in life. Instead, it should expand your horizons. Write what you love, write what you’ve experienced and, above all, write honestly and let your personality and interests shine through. Use your imagination to write and let your knowledge make it real.