If there is one phrase which has the power to strike fear into the heart of any writer it’s ‘write what you know.’ It’s one of the most common rules inflicted, as well as a criticism. But what does it actually mean?
Let’s consider for a moment. Saying you should stick to ‘what you know’ implies not trying anything new, which in the world of writing is, quite frankly, insanity. Experimentation is vital. It’s what shoves us out of our comfort zones and keeps us on our toes, keeps those rich creative juices flowing. Just because you haven’t experienced something first-hand it shouldn’t mean that it’s off limits.
What ‘write what you know’ is really about is feelings. Say one of your characters is climbing a mountain, but you’ve never climbed one before. You can research mountaineering, rock-climbing, and how to survive in the wilderness and be able to write about those activities just fine. But it has to ring true somehow. You have to put yourself in that character’s position and understand how they might feel whilst climbing the mountain. Are they lonely? Tenacious? Desperate? Exhilarated? Think of a time when you have felt the same, and that’s the ‘what you know’ bit. Write about those emotions, and readers will easily relate to your story.
It’s impossible to have done everything your characters do. How many fantasy authors have actually flown on a dragon, or danced with a bunch of faeries? Has J. K. Rowling ever participated in a wizard’s battle? Of course not. We read to escape, and if writers only recounted real life experiences then let’s face it, it would be boring. Imagination is fuel, and it is possible to create anything so long as it can be understood on a human level. Getting that emotional connection with readers is all that’s needed for them to go along with the rest of the story, however fantastical it is.
There is another side to this phrase as well. Instead of ‘write what you know’ think ‘play to your strengths.’ Maybe you’re good at writing within a specific genre, or better at fiction than non-fiction, poetry than prose, articles than advertisements. Whatever. Remember that experimentation I mentioned earlier? Do it. Eventually you’ll discover what works best for you, your niche in the vast and volatile world of literature. Then you can ‘write what you know’ and shine at it.
This phrase doesn’t need to rule your life. Bear it in mind, yes, but you have the whole world at your disposal. Writing is supposed to be exciting! It’s about discovery, and bringing whatever it is you’re working on to life in any way possible. So next time someone tells you to play it safe and only write what you’ve personally experienced, tell them to go and try riding a dragon. Preferably a very angry one.