Write what you know has become one of those well-worn rules of writing that has been bandied about so much now, it has become almost meaningless. So has the less used, but still worn, quote about writing what you don’t know. Besides being contradictory, these two pieces of advice don’t really help a writer much when they are trying to figure out what to write about and find their voice. But that’s not to say the advice in question is not useful. It is. It just needs a bit of elaboration.
Write What You Know
Let’s take the first rule, or piece of advice: write what you know. What does that mean exactly?
It can be looked at from a couple of angles.
Firstly, it means that you should write about the things in life that you are already familiar with. This usually means the culture, traditions and people that you have spent most, or all, of your life being around.
Experience counts for a lot when it comes to writing authentically. Indeed, authenticity is the main reason the “write what you know” spiel is often used. Writers should write from, and about, their own experiences. And while writing from experience is no guarantee of quality, or even authenticity, it at least gives a writer a fighting chance to put themselves across authentically, as well as a chance to produce half decent work.
If a writer tried to write about things that they have no experience in at all, it would become much more difficult for the writer to produce anything credible or authentic, simply because they won’t know enough about what they are trying to write, and certainly not enough to write about it with any kind of depth or real insight.
Writing about things you don’t really know about will lead to shallow work and a shallow read for anyone who reads it. So if you have never been to Jamaica say, or Australia, don’t try to write about those places as if you have. Similarly, if you have never driven a racing car, or know nothing about nautical engineering, don’t try to write about those things. If you do, it’s doubtful you will ever write anything of real quality, or anything that is even worth reading in the first place, because it will come across as too inauthentic.
The first five novels I wrote were fantasy novels set in a fictional city in America. I’ve never even been to the US, so everything I wrote was gleaned from media sources only–TV, books, movies. I mostly got away with it because the city was fictional, and the story and characters were authentic enough to distract attention away from the fact that I clearly wasn’t American. In that case, I didn’t follow the advice of write what you know. On the other hand, the city in the books is entirely fictional, so I could make it how I liked, within reason.
Some non-US writers might be tempted to set their novels in America, despite knowing little about the place, bar what they have seen on TV, simply because the US is a bigger draw as far as settings go, not to mention a bigger marketplace. Lee Childs, who is English, did this, but he had also visited America quite a few times, and his wife is American, so he was able to get away with it. Plus, he is Lee fucking Childs!
For most other people, following that example wouldn’t be a good idea.
Adrian McKinty, a fellow Irish thriller writer, remarked in a recent blog post that he was once advised by the BBC to set his stories elsewhere, as apparently stories set in Northern Ireland don’t sell. Which is bullshit, of course. There are plenty of writers from Northern Ireland who sell well around the world, and Adrian McKinty became one of them when he went on to set his bestselling novels in Northern Ireland. As he said:
Not listening to the BBC’s advice and finally writing about what I knew—my childhood in Belfast during the Troubles—had allowed me to delve deeper into a greater vein of poetry and truth than I’d ever done before in a book. Prior to writing my Belfast novel, I’d just been making up stories, but now, I was recreating the past in an artistically fulfilling way that readers could identify with.
Write what you know can also just mean that you write from the heart, and that you put across thoughts and emotions on the page that you are familiar with, and know well. If you can do this, you might just get away with the fact that other things in your writing don’t quite ring true, like the setting or finer cultural details.
To quote Adrian McKinty from the same article again:
Good fiction gives readers access to emotional truths that are universal, transcending history, culture, or geography. Reaching these truths can be done in a number of ways, but one of the best is still through that hoary old trope: write what you know…
Write What You Don’t Know
On the surface, this is contradictory advice, but it is still true. You should also try to write about things that you know little or nothing about.
Part of writing is exploring things through stories and characters. It’s a process of discovery.
Let’s say you want to write about a character who is a soldier, but you know hardly anything about the military, or what it’s like to be a soldier. This was me when I wrote Dead Reckoning. The main character, Harry Edger, is ex-Foreign legion. I knew if I wanted to make the character authentic, I would have to do my research. So I did, spending months reading autobiographies of ex-soldiers, watching documentaries, even asking questions of real soldiers. By the time the research was over, I felt confident I could write Edger’s character authentically. And I did!
So writing what you don’t know is just as important as writing what you do know. Don’t let your lack of knowledge or experience stop you. Simply find a way to get that knowledge and experience wherever possible. Never fired a gun? Go out and find somewhere that you can do that. Never rock climbed? Go do it!
Failing first hand experience, try this. Try to relate your experience to the experience of your character. Do you have experience that is similar to that of the characters? If so, use it. Try to use the feelings of your experience in the experience of your characters. Try to see how they would view the world through their eyes, then write what they see.
Of course, you don’t have to do so much that you nearly become your character. Just enough to give you enough material to work with. If you need to, when you’re writing, you can do more research to fill in any gaps that are left.
If you are passionate enough about finding out about things you don’t yet know about, you should succeed in eventually knowing them, or at least seeming to know about them enough to convince a reader that you do.
So Write What You Know And Also What You Don’t Know
To produce authentic work, a writer has to combine these two things, writing what they both know, and don’t know. It’s exploring familiar territory, while at the same time discovering new territory.
Combine what you know already, with what you want to know…if that makes sense!