It didn’t make any sense to me because I was taking it very literally. I kept thinking, “Well, if writers only wrote what they knew, we’d have no fantasy or scifi or historical novels.” I mean, unless people were out there falling in love with vampires or having their home planets overrun by meat-eating aliens, it just wasn’t possible to always write what you know.
What I finally realized was that the best writers really do write what they know. Now, does that mean Stephenie Meyer ran into a family of vegetarian, sparkling vampires? Or that J.K. Rowling once stumbled upon a whole community of magical kids running around undetected by all the muggles somewhere in Britain? Of course not! (Well, not that I’m aware of in any case).
So how do writers write what they know?
They infuse their stories with all of the emotions, knowledge, and life that they’ve experienced and use all of it to build their characters and storyworlds into incredible books that suck their readers into a new reality. I’m willing to bet that Ms. Meyer has, at some point in her life, experienced fear and loss and that total exhilaration of first love. J.K. Rowling was certainly never a magical teenage boy fighting a weird, snake-looking wizard…but she probably knows what it feels like to be terrified, excited, helpless, alone…to find friends who love you, fight for something you want, and maybe have things turn out great in the end.
To write what you know, you need to write about something you care about, something that touches you. That connection you have to your subject will come through in your work. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut sums it up perfectly:
Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about. It is the genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.There is a more literal approach to the “write what you know” statement as well. It really is necessary to be familiar with your genre and the world of which you are writing. There are little quirks and “rules” to every genre – what works for a romance might not always work for a thriller.
This can also be an area when a little research can come in handy. If you are writing a book set in Ancient Greece, it is necessary for you to do enough research that you really know what you are talking about. Otherwise, you will never be able to truly transport your readers into the world you are trying to describe.
Familiarity breeds authenticity.
You may not be able to personally experience the day Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, or what it is like to live beneath the ocean, but you can familiarize yourself enough with the pertinent details that you can convince your readers that your characters are living through those experiences.
This applies to the worlds you create yourself as well. Fantasy and science fiction writers create their own worlds, true. But there are certain rules even within the realms of fictional worlds. Maybe in your world, women have supernatural powers and men don’t. Or maybe blondes can see the future and brunettes can fly. You can make whatever rules you’d like for your universe, but you have to stick to them. And you have to have enough knowledge of that world to convince your reader that the experiences and emotions of your characters are authentic and appropriate for the world in which they live.
When you write a book, you want to suck your reader into your world – whether that world is set in the past, the present, the future, or on some other planet or reality…you need to know enough about that world, your characters, and the things they will feel and experience to draw your readers in. Using your own emotions and experiences, and your own specialized knowledge about the world you are creating, will help you craft an amazing story.
In other words, my dear writers…write what you know ;-)