Write What You Know: My Take

TypewriterQuestionMarkWrite what you know.

If you’ve been writing for any amount of time, you’ve probably stumbled upon this phrase. But what does it really mean? That can vary from author to author, but here’s my take on it…

When I first heard write what you know, I was intimidated. What the heck did I know? My life was rather mundane. I didn’t have a tormented childhood to draw from. I hadn’t survived a life-threatening illness, got lost in the desert, or had to fend off a pack of zombies (except on the Xbox). Not that anyone would wish for tragedy, but it seemed that I was always hearing about writers who had these incredible life experiences that inspired their writing. Me, not so much.

To take this argument one step further, I write fantasy. What do I know about magic? I’ve never experienced it, so how can I truly know anything about it. Ironically, it was the fantasy aspect that helped me figure it out. A writer friend challenged me to write what I know, but with a fantasy twist. I decided to give it a try. I would write about my dull life and throw in some magic. I started with my career. I’m a chemist, so my character should be…an alchemist. If you’ve read my books, you know what happened next. Yep, Addie was born. And because this was in response to that prompt, I wrote it in first person and set it in my everyday world. Up until this point, I had been writing in third person in a secondary world fantasy setting.

I wrote the opening chapter with no real idea what the story was about. It was just a fun exercise that was little more than a character sketch. When I went back and read it later, I was stunned. It didn’t suck. For the first time in my life, I wanted to share something I had written. Add a couple of years, an online workshop, and a big dollop of courage, and I was ready to send The Final Formula out into the world. In the process, Addie taught me what write what you know really meant. I might not have experienced the adventures that she experiences, but I know how she’ll react because she is me. I had never written a character who encompassed so much of my own personality. (Granted, Addie is cooler, smarter, and much more apt to tell people what she thinks than me—but you get the idea.)

Now this isn’t to say that every character I write is me made over. Considering some of villains, you’re probably glad that’s not true. But every character, even the bad guys, have a little of me in them. That’s how I connect and how I make them real. They are what I know. That’s what Addie taught me. I didn’t need to fight a pack of zombies to understand how I would feel in that situation. If I place a character in the world I live in, or a completely alien one, I don’t need to have visited the place to know what she would think about it. That’s because the character is what I know, not the world or situation.

But wait, there’s more. When you put yourself into your character and thus into your stories, those stories become unique. We’re all different. Two people can watch the same event and give vastly different recounts of it. Writing is the same. What your characters notice in the world around them are the things you would notice and that gives them a unique perspective that is all you. Obviously, you’ll try to differentiate your characters form each other. A character who is a neat freak will behave differently in a certain situation than one who is a slob. But they’re both you. If you shared their particular slant on cleanliness, how would you react? What if the character has a physical disability you don’t? Or a magical power? Put yourself in their shoes. Make them you, then write what you know.

Ha, there it is. My epiphany. To write what I know is to know my characters. What they feel.  How they will react. It’s about honest emotions and making those emotions real, yet unique because they are my own.

In the end, I don’t have to suffer for my art. I don’t have to be the lone surviver of a worldwide plague or know how that moment of panic feels when my parachute won’t open. I can put myself in my character, tempered by his strengths and weaknesses, and react the way I would. All I need is a little imagination and a bit of research on the details I’m unfamiliar with, then I just write what I know.

2 comments

  1. You have it.
    It was a real ‘duh’ moment for me when I realized this was what I needed to do because I had recognized from an early age that authors do it (which is why it came as a shock to find out not all authors use pseudonyms). By middle school I had postulated that Tolkien had something wrong with his left arm or hand due to how many of his characters did. It was no surprise to discover that he was, indeed, missing the ring finger on that side.

    • That’s interesting. I didn’t know that about Tolkien. And you clearly pay way more attention than I do. I tend to get lost in the story, lol. 🙂

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