How many times have you heard the writing adage “Write What You Know”? This is a saying so old, that who originally said it has been lost. Of course, it’s attributed to Mark Twain, but what quote isn’t these days?
But this quote… what does it mean for writers? I certainly don’t think it means write only what you know. If all writers did that, we’d all be writing memoirs or thinly veiled autobiographical novels.
For example, I write fantasy, even though I’ve never fulfilled a prophecy. I write from a male’s point of view even though I’ve always been a female. Many of our writing assignments in classes are writing from strange points of view (once I got an assignment to write from the perspective of a table) or writing about things we’ve never experienced firsthand.
I’ve also written about relationships I’ve never been apart of: I’ve written as an only child, I’ve written about battles and wars.
Yet always, something will surface in my writing that I have firsthand experience with. It’s inevitable — I’m human and I’m writing about humans. (Even if I weren’t writing about humans — if, say, my characters were cats, I’d probably be humanizing them. Plus I’ll always be writing for a human audience.) So, I may not know what it’s like to lose a parent, but I know what it’s like to love a parent. I may not have ever been to the catacombs of Paris myself, but I know what it’s like to be
This has never been a problem for me as a writer. If I haven’t experienced something myself, I just imagine what it’d be like. I’ve always been an empathetic person, and I think this really factors into my writing. If I can’t imagine what it’d be like, I do research. What is it like to be shot in the side? What’s the weather like in New York during April? It’s not hard to figure out those things for someone who is interested.
Emotional things are harder to figure out. If you’ve never experienced PTSD or been a parent or suffered from anxiety, how do you write about it? It’s a different kind of research, but you can figure it out. Psychology classes and articles; talking to others who have experienced that emotion can help. Reading other fiction can be an invaluable tool, too. You can see how such-and-such author dealt with it.
Not interested in reading? As the King said,
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ~Stephen King
You may not know what you’re writing, but you can know enough to make it believable. You can even know it, in a way, by experiencing it through your characters. You know how some parents live vicariously through their children? Writers can live through their characters. So can readers.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” ~George RR Martin
Sometimes you want to write what you know, but if you don’t know, you can still write.