If you’ve ever read anything about writing, chances are that at some stage you’ll have encountered the maxim that you should ‘write what you know’. It’s at this point that some writers will throw up their hands and declare that nothing interesting ever happens to them, so what can they possibly write about. It can also lead you into dangerous territory if you decide to turn real events into fiction – if you don’t disguise your characters well enough, it can land you in hot water with the real life protagonists if they don’t come out of the fiction in a positive light. So how on earth can you navigate this treacherous terrain and write about what you know without upsetting, or boring, anyone?
I’ll let you into a secret.
Writing what you know is not as black-and-white as it first appears. If you’re a receptionist in a busy office, you don’t have to write about the drudgery of admin. If you’re a mechanic, you don’t need to set all of your stories in a garage. What you can do is transpose situations in which you find yourself into fictional settings, regardless of genre!
Take those characters and situations and put them in a different context. Use events from your life as the basis of events for your characters. We’ve all been to weddings and office functions, and we’ve all had a first day at school or in a new job – those are experiences you know but, more importantly, they’re experiences a reader can relate to.
Deeper Implications of ‘Write What You Know’
Don’t take it so literally – I’m pretty sure Tolkien didn’t have to go to Middle Earth, and JK Rowling never went to Hogwarts! The fundamental fact is that what you know is humanity, and how the world works, and human nature is fundamentally the same. While we all have different drives, desire, fears and goals, we have the same basic needs. The setting is just window dressing – as in the first two points, the characters need to be believable, even if they aren’t based in our reality.
Put Everyday People into Unusual Situations
Maybe you see the same people on your daily commute, and you’ve invented back stories for them. You could write a story about bored commuters, with the themes of apathy and ennui in the modern city, but that’s too obvious. Think sideways – those characters could be downtrodden victims of an oppressive state in a post-apocalyptic dystopian tale, or maybe they’re robotic workers in a science fiction adventure.
Maybe you went to a wedding recently, but you don’t want to write about an average twenty-first century wedding. That wedding might have taken place in the sixteenth century, or perhaps it took place in a fantasy setting, attended by warriors and elven priests.
Use Yourself as Your Protagonist
One of the stumbling blocks a lot of new writers face is that
of characterisation. Lead characters can appear as composites of well-known characters, or they appear as ‘Mary Sue’ characters, those figures that are too good to be true. A good example of a Mary Sue character would be Twilight ’s Bella – instantly popular at a new school, inexplicably attractive to all males and possessed of a special ability that grants her immunity from vampire powers. That makes for a dull character .
However, if you use yourself as a basis, you can include character flaws you might not admit to in real life, and you can base your character’s reactions to an event on how you would react in the same position. The character will be more believable because it’s based on a real person – you.
Use a Hobby to Inform Your Writing
If you’re an amateur artist, or you have a passion for 1940s social history, then use them to inform your writing. Lawyers tend to write legal thrillers and medical professionals are more likely to write scientific dramas than chick lit but it doesn’t have to stop at your profession. Interesting or unusual hobbies can be a goldmine of ideas, and if it’s something you know well, then yes, you are writing what you know. If you give your character the same unusual hobby, they’re more likely to stick in a reader’s mind than a character who likes watching TV or chatting over dinner.
Location. Location. Location.
It’s true that a lot of fiction is set in major or famous locations – consider the number of books set in LA, New York, London or even Paris. Even if you’ve never been, you probably know enough from movies to be able to write something set in a generic New York neighbourhood, or involving London’s West End.
Why not use an area you know well instead? Perhaps you were raised in a small village, or you currently live in a quirky, bohemian neighbourhood. You can change the names if you want and turn the location into something more inventive, or maybe you want to make the place famous. Other people who live in or know the area will read your story due to the local interest, and those unfamiliar with the place will get a good feel for it – and may even want to visit. Even if you hate the place and expose it warts and all, you’re still writing what you know – which means writing with conviction.
What about you? What do you understand by the phrase ‘write what you know’, and do you do so yourself? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Icy is a die-hard Northerner who lives and works in the north east of England. She is currently working on fiction, particularly of the dark fantasy and Gothic variety, as well as a PhD in Film Studies. You can find her weekly flash fiction over on her blog .