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Writing What You Know

Banes at 12:00AM, May 7, 2020

Writing what you know is one of those old canards that show up in writing advice, though it's not up there with things like “show, don't tell” and “this is supposed to be a literary essay - do not doodle in the margins”.

Or is that last one just me?

My cousin was once fined for “doodling in the margins”. ‘Nother story.

“Writing what you know” used to sound to me like a requirement for writing stories that were AUTHENTIC. Makes sense i guess - but how could I write only what I know and still tell stories about pirates, space captains, dragons or video store clerks? Well, that last one I could do.

So is that just nonsensical advice to be discarded in favor of using our imagination and making up what we want?

It’s probably in the area of emotions that this advice has its place - a story or series is not REALLY just about dragons or pirates or clerks. The feelings the characters have and challenges and interactions they have with each other and the world at large on an EMOTIONAL level is where we bring to bear our own experiences and ‘what we know’.

Human experiences, good, bad and mixed, stuff that brings us joy, despair, fear, ecstasy, and dread - that's the raw material that we can translate to stories of any genre. We repurpose that genuine stuff into any fantastical stories we can think of. That's what gives our stories real juice.

We're not old timey pirates (well, some of us are), but we can bring our own experiences with ambition, loneliness, feeling loss, feeling victory, feeling companionship or competitiveness or love or hate or fear…that's the stuff we can tap into.

In the way that great actors inhabit the characters they play and “become them” emotionally and psychologically to give an authentic portrayal is the type of thing we're talking about.

Of course, there's a matter of research and expanding our knowledge of how OTHER people might react differently than we do is part of it, too. But I think it's the emotional inhabiting of our stories that the “write what you know” advice is getting at.

What do you think ‘write what you know’ means? And do you?



lokpolymorfa at 4:09PM, May 7, 2020

I'm not a very good writer. I rely a lot on my illustrations to tell stories. I DO have a friend who is an avid writer who once told me that your characters can only be as smart as you are. You technically can't write about what you don't know. You can imagine or speculate to a certain degree. But knowing is most effective, which is why she does a lot of research and reading other sources before writing about then in her story. It's like in drawing. You can't draw what you don't know. That's why research and reference can help.

Gunwallace at 1:56PM, May 7, 2020

Echoing what others have said before me here, I think this is related to that old maxim: learn from other people's mistakes. And, of course, from your own.

cdmalcolm1 at 10:23AM, May 7, 2020

I like superhero stuff. But I’m not a superhero. Yet I write them. Fantasy. I don’t know the 1st. thing about being a superhero. I write to please me. Telling a story how I want to see told. It is selfish but it’s my stories. As much as I hate history, I fall back on it to help in my research. I do notice things I hated as a kid I find myself researching into it. This is not because I felt immature in such subjects. No. I believed stories of old can be told a different way. A new prospective. Reading history books to me is boring but if I needed something that is fact, I will use it in my writing. I like action stuff with drama and point of view conflicts, sometimes laced with secrets to tell my tales. If I don’t know something and I want that something to be part of my characters, I have no choice but to learn what I can to make that thing a part of that character. Same thing holds true for drawing objects and actors in stories.

usedbooks at 8:14AM, May 7, 2020

Bonus note/tip: I once read something about LGBT+ fiction that struck me as significant (and applicable to other groups). Include LGBT+ characters in your stories. Inclusion is good and welcome. But do not "tell their stories" if you have not lived them. Let people tell their stories. (It is the same issue that exists when you have autism awareness/support groups led by non-autistic people, a women's issues committee composed of men, or a seminar on American slavery written and presented by white people.)

usedbooks at 8:05AM, May 7, 2020

Second Interpretation: Don't write about things that hold no interest or passion for you. Write about things that YOU like, regardless of what is popular. Write for you, not the audience. I don't like horror stories. I don't write horror stories. I love biology and mystery; so that comes out in my writing. I'm not going to write a steamy romance not only because I've never had a steamy romance but also because those stories bore me.

usedbooks at 8:00AM, May 7, 2020

Two interpretations. First one: Do your research. Basically, look at all the dumbass mistakes TV and movie writers make and DON'T DO THAT. We have the internet. Unplugging a computer will not turn off all the internet or stop a hacker attack. Bulletproof vests only prevent puncture damage, not pain/pressure. If you have a doctor in your story, know enough about how doctors practice to make him realistic. If your main character follows a religion, do a little research on that religion so as not to be inaccurate (or offensive).

bravo1102 at 4:37AM, May 7, 2020

Knowledge doesn't necessarily mean just what you've personally experienced, it can also be your research. I mean how do you know about stuff? You read about it? Looked at it? Hey sometimes you can touch stuff to get a feel for the texture. But you don't need to live the middle Ages. Even though there are places where you can these days, I personally prefer modern hotel rooms with showers and modern food. I prefer potatoes to turnips. And I know they didn't have potatoes in Medieval Europe because I studied the Colombian Exchange. Something I added to my knowledge so I know about it.

MOrgan at 2:24AM, May 7, 2020

The problem is that people misinterpret "write what you know" as 'write what you've experienced' the thing is you can know stuff without experiencing it. You can read memoirs of mountain climbers, arctic explorers, and astronauts and know what these things are like. Or you can use science, such as paleontologists studying fossilized chromotophores to know what color a dinosaurs is. What you know is much, much more broad than what you've experienced.

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