“Write what you know” is probably one of the most clichéd pieces of writing advice out there. Teachers often say it to students, or more experienced writers will say it to fledgling authors, but often times this phrase isn’t really unpacked or well explained. What does it really mean? If you work in finance, are you confined to only writing stories involving economics? Or if you’re a stay-at-home parent, can you only write about doing chores and taking care of children?
If that was the case, obviously speculative fiction as a whole would not exist, and I would say that most people who write murder mysteries, adventure stories, or even romance novels, haven’t actually experienced the events they are writing about firsthand. Really what the phrase “write what you know” is getting at, is your ability to try and capture the “human experience”, and another phrase that authors like to throw around a lot. But ultimately this advice is supposed to be about capturing emotions, or feelings, the sort of things people can relate to no matter the situation. And by the way that’s what we mean when we talk about the “human experience”.
There are a lot of things in your life you are not going to experience firsthand, but, unless you live some sort of strange and incredibly sheltered life, you are going to experience a wide range of emotions, and these kinds of feelings are experienced by all people, even if the specific conditions under which they occur might be different. It’s these feelings and emotions that are going to connect your story with your readers.
In the world of speculative fiction, you’re going to be writing about some strange and wonderful things, but that’s not what’s going to make your story compelling. Readers need to latch on to things that they know, that they can relate to. No one knows what it’s like to be face-to-face with a dragon, and very few people know what it’s like to fly in a spaceship, but almost everyone knows what it’s like to be afraid or to be full of wonder. As an author you have to find those emotional grounding points in your narrative and really draw the reader into them in order to make your story engaging.
And if you’re ever at a loss as to how to capture a certain moment in your story, remember that you yourself have stories. You have that funny one you always tell at parties, or that embarrassing one that you can bring up when someone asks for it. You have those adventure stories, or your sad stories that you only tell people close to you. Let those, and the emotions you connect with them, be your guide.
I hope that this article is helpful. I realized myself only recently that to me “write what you know” was pretty much exactly the clichéd phrase I described at the beginning of this piece. Or at the very least it wasn’t something that I could articulate very well. My hope is that this article gives you a little bit of clarity on what writers mean when they throw out that particular phrase.
The inspiration for this article largely came from this interview clip by Big Think with Nathan Englander: