“Write what you know.” You hear it all of the time. It is offered up as the ultimate kernel of wisdom in this business, but what does it really mean? If authors followed it in the literal sense we would never have all of the wonderful fantasy novels that are currently so popular. Star Wars and Twilight could never have been the blockbuster franchises they are. After all, none of us knows what it is like to save a galactic empire or to love a vampire.
That does not mean that the phrase has no literal meaning. After all, lawyers write some of the best courtroom dramas. Cops write procedural novels that fascinate us with their inside scope. Niche fiction, it could be said, is best written by those on the inside.
Where does that leave the rest of us? What about the historical fiction writers? The fantasy writers? The science fiction writers?
It leaves us with the human state. What do you feel? What do you do? What do you observe? Greed, jealousy, ambition, and love are all universal feelings. We don’t have to have been born in the 1800’s in order to understand Charles Dickens, nor do we need any more than a passing knowledge of the renaissance to gain a general understanding of Shakespeare’s plays. The reason for that is, of course, that times change, but people do not.
It is often said that writers were the first psychologists and it is probably true. After all, Jane Austen remains popular to this day not for her themes of husband and fortune hunting, but for her witty insights into the folly of the human mind.
It follows then, that to write what we know, in its most basic form, is to write what we experience. Take that fear from the first day you went to kindergarten, or the insecurity that you felt when another child bullied you, or the pain when you burnt yourself making breakfast this morning, or the attraction you felt to a stranger in the gym last week, then magnify, diminish, or warp it as you choose.
Meanwhile, we must remember to do our research, so that if we have not lived through our plot, we can at least pretend we have.
That’s my take on “write what you know”. What’s yours?