There’s a lot of advice out there for writers masquerading as rules. They look simple and straight forward, but are actually quite complicated and nuanced. New writers, and even veterans, fall victim too often to the stifling version. In this periodic series, I’m going to dig deep into the reasons behind the “rules” and the real advice one should take from them.
Write what you know.
How many of us have heard that advice? How many of us think, or at least thought, that it was one of the “rules” of writing? I heard it young – very young, as in third grade. I was a stubborn child back then full of questions and observations. My teacher was growing frustrated with my insistence on writing fiction in my weekly journal. She hoped that I would limit my free writing assignments to more normal journal type entries, but even back then it wasn’t the way that I thought. Did she really expect me to believe that J.R.R. Tolkien had met hobbits and dwarves? Of course not.
The truth is that J.R.R. Tolkien never met a hobbit. He never traveled to Bag End or anywhere in Middle Earth – well not physically anyway. J.K. Rowling didn’t go to Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Mary Shelly never met a Vampire. William Shakespeare never met a fairy either. So how did they get away with writing their stories since it was clearly against the rules? For that matter, how do any authors get away with writing fiction? That “rule” would seem to indicate that all books should be in just a few categories: Memoir, History, advice and text book. You only have to walk into your local bookstore or library to realize that there is so much more out there. So much fiction and tall tales. All of it written by people without direct experience with their subjects.
You know that such a narrow reading of the advice isn’t productive. So we need to have an understanding of “what you know” that is broader. You know a lot of things. You’ve experienced a lot of things. If you take those experiences out of context you can fit them into other contexts. For example: I was, at one time, a geochemistry student. I didn’t finish that degree, but I took quite a few classes before I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I do know geology – not well enough to write a text book, but certainly well enough to accurately describe the walls of a canyon. I have also experienced a chemistry lab, so it wouldn’t be stretching my imagination to set a scene in a chem lab.
There are other ways to KNOW things too. You can know a lot about a subject from reading about it. Research isn’t just for non-fiction. Network with people who have the experience you are lacking and ask them about it. Listen not just to the words, but also the way things are said. Learn what practitioners of a skill complain about; and how they complain. If you can, get them to tell you the jokes.
In some cases, your imagination will be enough. When it comes to things like magic in your world, only you can know it well enough. Play through it in your mind. What does magic feel like? Ask yourself. Imagine what it’s like fly.
So yes, you should “write what you know.” Just don’t let it limit you.