Today’s post is about a piece of writing advice that’s right up there with “Show, don’t tell,” as far as things people tell novice writers but don’t really explain. What conclusions would you draw if someone just told you to write what you know, but didn’t explain what it meant?
I think most people assume it has something to do with facts or personal experiences. While those two things certainly play a part in writing, they’re not the entire “write what you know” picture.
It’s less about facts, and more about emotion
Facts are still important. I’m not questioning that, they are very much a piece of this equation. But how do you write about training dragons when dragons don’t exist? Or piloting a ship through space? What about magic?
You start with what you know. If you’ve never trained a dragon, maybe you’ve trained a pet. Don’t just resort to the nuts and bolts of teaching them a command in your book, though. If your readers wanted that, they’d look up training pet videos on YouTube. Instead, reach a little deeper. How did it feel when it seemed like you weren’t connecting with your pet? Were you frustrated? Angry? Did you laugh it off and try again? If you had any lightbulb moments, you should try and include those, too. And how did it feel when they finally mastered a trick? That’s what your readers want. Yes, the mechanics of training are important, and you do need to come up with a consistent dragon training system for your book, but the emotions matter so much more. That’s how your readers will come to put themselves in your characters’ shoes.
“Write what you know” comes back to showing and telling
So much of writing depends on how we show or tell details to readers. In this case, you might tell your reader what steps you’re taking to your dragon, but you’ve got to show them what it feels like before they can really understand.
Some things are going to be easier than others. Dragon training isn’t too bad, because I suspect most of us have either had a pet or been close to someone with a pet. What if your character’s spaceship breaks down? As far as facts go, you’d probably need to look at NASA’s history and policies. But emotionally, you might be able to equate it to your car breaking down. I know it’s not exactly the same, but it’s a place to start. Use the facts to build a frame for your characters to act within, and then fill it in with emotion.
Grief is probably the hardest thing to mimic in fiction, I think. You don’t know how you’re going to feel about losing someone, or how you’re going to react to that loss, until it happens. It changes you, whether you realize it–or want it–or not. I know people who’ve had total personality changes after a death in their family. Grief is not just a single emotion. It’s a process that involves working your way through lots of feelings, and some people can’t do it on their own.
Research is always an option
I’ve talked about research a couple of times already (here and here if you haven’t seen those), and it’s definitely a valid approach to writing about unfamiliar situations. I think firsthand sources are best if you’re trying to capture the emotion of a scene. Always be sure to ask a source how they felt, both in the moment and after an event.
I hope I was able to shed some light on yet another writing cliche for you. I don’t want to call “write what you know” a bad writing rule, because I don’t think it is, just a misunderstood or misquoted piece of advice. If you have any questions, or anything you want to add, please feel free to leave a comment below. And of course those social media buttons are there if you want to share this with your writer friends. Thanks!
I’ll be back tomorrow with the very last post in my blogathon. The finish line is in sight!