If there’s one saying that is repeated to new writers even more than Show, Don’t Tell, it’s got to be “Write what you know.” I had a college poetry professor that like the phrase so much he made us recite it every day as class begun.
What’s kind of funny is that after all these years, I still have trouble with that one. As a twenty-something kid in the middle 90s, I didn’t really know anything. And anything I did know would certainly bore any potential reader to tears.
My poetry was more abstract too. In fact, the most common criticism in the class was that I didn’t use enough concrete imagery and that my poems read more like song lyrics. Really, that makes sense, since back then I was obsessed with music, especially music with dark, abstract, lyrics full of weird symbolism. (I came this close to getting “World’s Greatest Pink Floyd Fan” tattooed on my back.)
Anyhow, as soon as that class was over, I gracefully accepted the A that I don’t think I deserved, and promptly declared that I would never write another poem again. (A promise I have kept all these years later, by the way.)
But after everything I had learned and forgotten in that class, one thing did stick with me. You guessed it:
Write what you know
Yeah…after all these years, I still hate that quote. I know it’s attributed to Twain (or apparently Hemingway if you trust your web search. Maybe kids these days can’t tell the two apart. ) I digress.
My biggest problem with the “write what you know quote” is the obvious one: I write about stuff I don’t actually know. I’m not a serial killer. I’ve never traveled at light-speed. I don’t know any elves in real life. And I’m certainly no ladies’ man. Of course, those are all things I’ve written about.
In genre fiction, “write what you know” is simply bad advice.
Or is it?
Well, maybe. The way I see it, in genre writing, you may not know anything about some of the topics your stories revolve around. But there other things in your story that you do know about. You know about people. You know about emotions. And you know about conflict.
That’s the type of stuff your story is really about. The characters, the emotions, and the conflict. It doesn’t matter how out of this world your setting is as long as the you keep those three things down to earth.
As for the other stuff, the spaceships, the ghosts, the dragons. Well, you don’t know anything about that stuff, other than what you’ve learned from reading other works of fiction. So I guess in a sense, you do know about them.
But, really, it’s not so important that you know the stuff you write about. What’s important is that you love it.
What about you? How important is it for you to “write what you know”? Do you pay any attention to that quote at all? Leave a comment and let us know!