When I Googled the maxim “Write what you know” to find its origins, I got 259,000,000 hits in 0.49 seconds. An astounding number of people out there are touting this advice.
Some believe it came from Mark Twain, others credit Hemingway. Wherever it came from, it’s been one of the most frustrating concepts for me personally and a lot of other writers I know. I’m a middle-aged white woman with a suburban home, 4 kids, and 2 dogs, and I’ve never been involved in any kind of adventure, no broken bones, not even a trip to the ER.
Most would say I’ve been blessed, and I agree whole-heartedly. But when I decided I wanted to be a writer, the idea of “Write what you know” made me feel like a whole realm of literary possibility was off-limits to me. And yet, my own breadth of experience felt too small to contain a great story.
As a child, I loved creating worlds and stories out of my imagination. As I grew older, however, my teachers in grade school and even professors in college trotted out this old saying. I began to worry that my lack of experiences in life meant that I had nothing important to say. Seriously, who wants to read about my boring life?
I wish someone had explained that the concept of “Write what you know” is much bigger and more nuanced than that.
You actually know a lot.
You’ve experienced joy and anger, pain and humiliation, loss and grief, love and laughter, and a long assortment of emotions in life. You know about those things and can channel them into your writing to give it the depth and magnitude it needs to touch your reader’s heart.
You also know your world in a way that no one else does. Some incredible stories have been written about unassuming characters living ordinary lives. Look at Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates or The Ice Storm by Rick Moody. Both take place in the suburbs, both contain characters whose unadventurous lives are similar to a million others, and yet the experiences and struggles of the characters living within those worlds, are extraordinary.
You can learn a lot.
A lot of authors spend months or even years researching the world where they want to set their story. Look at the popular historical fiction books by Philippa Gregory like The Other Boleyn Girl. They are laden in accurate historical detail from the style of clothes to the contents of the meals. If she had only written about her life growing up in the small English city of Bristol, her books would be very different. Instead, she wrote about what she knew: British history and 18th century literature.
And even if you don’t want to spend ages learning about a subject, you have already picked up a lot. Every time you help a friend through a heartbreak, support a family member as they battle an illness, observe a noisy family across the street, or even read a book or watch a movie. These experiences all increase your understanding of human nature and can all be fed into characters and settings that are quite different from your own experiences.
You can connect what you know and what you make up
If everyone only wrote about the things they had literally experienced or researched, the sci-fi and fantasy shelves would be bare. But woven into these unfamiliar worlds are the things that we all know: fear, love, romance, loyalty, and all the other emotions that connect us as humans.
Create the worlds you want and then infuse them with “what you know”.
So, what should the maxim be?
I’ve heard it put a couple of different ways: “Write what you understand,” “Write what you want to know,” “Write what you’re passionate about,” or “Write what you don’t understand until you understand it.” Each of these gets a little closer to the truth in the adage, but still leaves something unsettled in my mind.
How about: “Know what you need to write.”
If something lives in your heart and mind, it’s true and you can write about it with authority. If you need to know more, study it, read about it, and experience it when and how you can. Research what you need to know to write with authority, and then let your imagination take wing.
If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)