Write What You Know (And What Exactly That Means)

Strangely enough, I have never been a part of a dystopian alternative reality where men outnumber women ten to one.  I have also never lived in medieval England under the reign of Richard I while he was away fighting the crusades.  I’ve never visited Montana in 1895, and I’ve never been part of Earth’s first interplanetary colonization mission on a transport ship that was sabotaged.  But these are all stories that I have written in the last couple of years or am working on right now.  Am I breaking the rules?

Everyone, writer or not, has heard the saying “write what you know”.  It’s part of the bread and butter of Story Writing 101.  If you write about what you know the story will be that much more vivid and the characters will have an authenticity to them that they wouldn’t otherwise have.  The only way you can create stories that sing is by writing what you know.

There are a lot of writers out there that take this literally and produce some amazing stuff!  Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, grew up in Mississippi in a world that was very much like her fantastic book.  John Grisham practiced criminal law for years before writing legal thrillers.  And J.K. Rowling obviously attended wizarding school in Scotland for eight years before growing up to write one of my favorite series of all time.

Ah.  I do believe we’ve reached the point.

How can you write what you know if it is impossible for you to have experienced it?  While literary fiction and the like present situations that it is very possible for authors to have lived through, genres like Sci-Fi and Historical Romance and hopefully Horror are so far off the beaten track of the world that we actually live in that the best we can do is sit around day-dreaming about them.

Now, I have two degrees in History from two different universities.  You could make the argument that in writing about History I am indeed writing about what I know.  Because I know enough History to do very well at Trivial Pursuit or as a contestant on Jeopardy!  But I’m single and I’ve had terrible luck with men, so how can I possibly write about Romance?

I have experienced sunrise over Twin Lights in Rockport, Mass.

Well, it’s a simple point, really.  I’ve lived.  I’ve loved.  I’ve been disappointed.  I’ve been overjoyed.  I’ve struggled for things that I want.  I’ve fought for causes I believe in.  I’ve been smacked down and I’ve been rewarded.  I have friends and I’ve lost friends.  I’ve experienced death and I’ve gone on living.  My life has provided a wealth of experience to draw on.Take The Loyal Heart, for example.  No, I have never been a young lady in medieval England fighting to rescue her friends from imprisonment in a castle.  I have, however, taken a stage combat class and have some rudimentary knowledge of how to wield a sword.  And I know what it’s like when the people you count on back out on you and the frustration of having to fight alone when the person you thought you loved lets you down.  That’s where I was writing from what I knew.  I would also make the argument that my heart knows what it would feel like if someone finally came along who stood up for me and fought for what I believed in.  In my book that also counts as what I know.

Okay, so what about the novel I’m working on right now?  It’s an alternative reality where men outnumber women ten to one, homosexuality and polyamory have become the norm and heterosexuality and monogamy are taboo.  With sex scenes.  How on earth can I write m/m sex when I have not and never will be able to truly experience it?  M/m Romance is a huge sub-genre of Romance right now and a lot of its writers are women.  How do we keep to the rule of “write what you know”?  Same way that I write about the Tower of London as it existed in 1194 for my novel The Courageous Heart: a little research and a lot of imagination.

Because in the end it’s not the physical descriptions of acts that are even remotely important to the story, it’s the emotions and the dynamics between the characters that count.  It’s about someone who has fallen out of love with their partner (been there) and someone who is desperate to keep that love (also been there).  It’s about learning everything you were told about the world was skewed (felt like that) and about a burning need to fix injustice no matter how destructive your attempts (felt that too).  It’s a story about a family trying to remain stable when the world around them is dysfunctional and their home is built on shifting sands.  I think we can all identify with that.

Knowing what you’re writing is not so much about the form of the work, it’s about the content.  Whether you’re writing about dystopian worlds or the town where you grew up, knowing your writing is about connecting with it and identifying with it on a visceral level.  That’s what makes a work dynamic.  That’s what makes readers want to come back for more.

So as you’re working on your next story, reach deep inside to test where you feel it.  If something isn’t working maybe it’s because you don’t know it well enough.  But I’m also a firm believer in the fact that if you’re moved to write something it’s because you DO know it on some level.  Look inward, reach deep and find it.  Your story and your characters will thank you.

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2 thoughts on “Write What You Know (And What Exactly That Means)

  1. So right on! It is that deep core within each of us–the human experience–that enables us to apply it to situations (and worlds) we will never visit. And THAT is where the magic comes from. Great post, Merry.

  2. I’m not a fan of the “write what you know” rule for all the reasons you’ve stated. However, if I was to pen a story about something far removed from my own knowledge and experiences, I’d ground some of it in reality and use what I DO know to make it work. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your current project, sounds fascinating!

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