Write What You Know

Published on March 29th

A lot of beginning writers get discouraged when writing teachers tell them the old chestnut “Write what you know.” They might feel this means they don’t have anything interesting to contribute, because they haven’t lived through the kind of adventures they want to write about. Maybe they’re students, or maybe they’re stuck in a dead-end job, or maybe they’re a stay-at-home parent… what’s happened to them that would be worth writing about?

Well, probably a lot more than they might expect, to start with – we tend to undervalue our own experiences because they seem humdrum and normal to us. After all, we’ve lived them! But leaving that aside, that’s not really what should be taken from the adage. It’s not about sticking with the circumstances of your everyday life and writing about nothing but that. The trick is to use what you know and what you’ve experienced in your life to make your writing more real, more lived-in, and more evocative.

Using your own knowledge and experiences in your writing doesn’t mean that your character’s mother should be exactly like your mother, or that her teacher should be based exactly on a teacher you had, or his brother should be just like your brother. It means taking real details, elements, and picking and choosing the little moments and quirks and color that will bring your character and their view of the world into sharp focus for the reader. Your heroine’s best friend might have your sister’s sense of humor, your dad’s love of crosswords, and your own best friend’s tendency to talk around a perpetual wad of chewing gum when she’s nervous or stressed. Or maybe that guy who runs the coffee shop down the street would be great inspiration for a gangster. Mix up your sources, and you might end up with something wonderfully unexpected rather than a flat character who will feel like you copied him out of a book of cliches. Use your memories to add a bit of spice when you need it, and don’t feel bad about enlarging on something or making it more exciting, either.

Of course, writing what you know also means sticking to locations that you at least have the ability and willingness to research well, and not just sticking to the tourist pictures. What does it smell like down by the harbor? What’s down the street from the fancy museum? Would there really be a beat-up motel in that part of town? Readers who’ve never been to the place you’re writing about may not notice if you get it wrong, but you can bet the locals and frequent visitors will, and it’ll throw them out of the narrative for a moment. If you feel that no other location will suffice but somewhere you haven’t been before, consider visiting and spending time not just in the areas on the tourist map, or at least plan to spend a lot of time researching. The internet makes this a lot easier – get to know your location on Google Maps, follow the area’s subreddit if they have one or check out local blogs and neighborhood newsfeeds. Read up on local points of interest on Yelp and FourSquare, and maybe even see if there’s anyone from there in a online writer’s group who might be willing to be interviewed for details and clarification. Maybe they’re interested in your hometown, too!

Lastly, don’t forget that “Write what you know” means emotions, too. This doesn’t mean you have to have had the experience of being betrayed to fascist dictators by your best friend, but it does mean that you should search inside yourself for what betrayal felt like to you in the moments you’ve felt it. You might not have watched your whole city be overtaken by an invading army, or felt the elation of running off those invaders with a cunning plan later, but you should be able to look inside yourself for analogous feelings and experiences and how you reacted to them. Let yourself inhabit the mind of the character and try to imagine how it feels to be them, and use everything inside you to make the picture you create as vivid as possible. Pouring yourself out on the page can look very different from what your actual life looks like, but it should feel just as genuine.

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