Write What You Know – Agree or Disagree?
There’s that old writers’ adage: write what you know. I have mixed feelings about this advice.
It’s true, I set a lot of stories in Michigan, because I know the area fairly well, and it means that I’ll be less likely to screw up certain things. But, I’ve also set stories in the UK. I haven’t been there, (yet) but google is an amazing thing. I can find pretty much all the info I need, and I can email friends for the rest.
But what about other things? Like writing people whose personalities, and careers, and lives are vastly different from mine? If I wrote strictly what I know, there would be a lot of stories out there about potty training multiple children at once, or making hideously ugly bridesmaids dresses, or cleaning up cat puke, or trying to organize my life. No one wants to read that.
Well, happily, I know a lot of people who are vastly different than me, and they’re usually willing to answer questions. I’m also not afraid to do research on people – particularly their jobs. When I can, I prefer the research in the form of asking questions an actual person who has the experience I’m looking to convey. Although, a word of warning…sometimes this can happen. o.O
All this said, I think the “write what you know” advice is less about the details – you can learn all that stuff – and more about writing what you know in terms of emotional truth. I don’t think you need to have been in an abusive relationship to write from the perspective of a person who’s experienced that–nor do you need to have gone through the pain of losing someone you love to write effectively about that. You don’t need to have experienced what it’s like to be a high school student in a new town, or how it feels to fall in love, but you do need to be able to connect with the idea and the feeling so thoroughly that you can convey the truth of those situations and emotions to the readers. Without being able to completely immerse yourself in the character you’re trying to bring to life, it’s difficult to really know that character. And if you don’t really know that character, the reader won’t either. And that doesn’t make a satisfying read for anyone.
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