“Write what you know” is one of the most frequent pieces of writing advice. Problem is, it’s rubbish. As Cat Sparks discusses at length in this excellent post:
We’ve all heard that old adage ‘write what you know’. Well, that’s a damn fine idea if you happen to be an articulate astronaut, outback adventurer, brain surgeon, fashionista, rock star, molecular biologist or trapeze artist. But if, like me, you’re just another white middle class wage slave, maybe you want to rethink that hoary old chestnut. Because maybe we just aren’t that interesting and maybe what we know about is duller than a public service tea break. I have developed a better idea. Find something you don’t know much about, learn it up and run with the baton from there.
Almost every book I’ve written has involved me doing research. Obviously, I did that for my two non-fic books. But also for my novels. The Magic or madness trilogy has a protag, Reason Cansino, who’s a mathematical genius. I am not. I can barely add up. I had to learn about Fibonaccis, prime numbers, and many other mathematical concepts that I barely grasped and have now completely forgotten, but hopefully make sense and worked in those three books. I’ve had some maths fiends write and tell me how much they appreciated Reason’s mathsiness. Those are the compliments that mean the most to me because that was by far the hardest part of writing the trilogy. I was writing stuff I didn’t understand. Or only barely. And only for long enough to write those bits of the book.
None of my novels are about people who are like me. Charlie in How To Ditch Your Fairy is a jock. I love sport, but I’ve never played that much and have never excelled. I would never have made it into a sports high school, even if I’d had the talent, cause I don’t have the discipline, and I really hate being told what to do. Charlie loves it. Rules make her happy, being at the strictest, most irrational high school in the world makes her happy. It would have driven me nuts. I would have been expelled within a week. Sometimes I think Charlie is the character I’ve written who is least like me. She has little intellectual curiosity, she’s happy with how things are, she loves rules, and she’s very very disciplined. Writing her was a revelation—I wound up liking and even understanding her. Whereas if we’d been at school together, I doubt we’d have had anything to talk about. Charlie doesn’t read or watch tellie and she doesn’t have much of an imagination.
If I’d’ve stuck to writing what I know, I wouldn’t have written any of those novels.
That’s not to say that I use nothing I know. Sometimes I give characters aspects of myself. Reason has spent time on indigenous settlements, so did I. Tom (also from the trilogy) has a father who’s a sociologist, so are both my parents. Tom in the trilogy loves fashion; so do I. But we’re still different. I’m challenged to get a button onto a shirt; Tom can make any item of clothing from scratch. So it required research to make his fashion prowess believable.
For me, one of the great pleasures of writing novels is exploring worlds I don’t know. I didn’t know anything about New Avalon when I began HTDYF. It’s an amalgam of places I’ve been, but it became its own city. Not like anywhere else. I didn’t know it until I wrote it. But I especially love learning about the characters I populate my books with. None of them have ever turned out the way I thought they would. They’ve all forced me to stretch as a writer, to learn things I didn’t know—about mathematics, about being an athelete, about being someone other than myself. It’s a gift to get to live in someone else’s head for awhile. It’s why I kept writing for twenty years without being published. It’s why I will keep writing long after my career has dried up. And it’s why I’m so bewildered by those writers who keep writing the same book over and over again. Maybe I should write a novel about that kind of writer so I can figure it out?
Forget about “write what you know”. Or, rather, don’t be limited by that injunction. One of the scariest things I encountered on my tour was when I was being shown around a lovely school and I was introduced to all the different grades, even kindergarten, and in one class, second grade, I think, the teacher told her students that I was a writer:
“She writes stories for a living!”
The kids looked a bit bemused by this information but smiled and waved at me. I smiled and waved back.
“When you were their age,” the teacher asked me, “you wrote about your own experiences, didn’t you?”
“Oh, no,” I said immediately, “I wrote about dinosaurs and wizards and witches and monsters and—”
The teacher cut me off even as many of the kids were giggling. “Yes, but don’t you agree that it’s much better to learn to write from your own experiences?”
I don’t think that at all. I was horrified. So horrified that I just stared at her, not able to articulate my response. I don’t think anyone noticed because someone realised we were running late and I was led away. But later that day I made it a point to talk about how important and fun it is to write about stuff you don’t know, and that the way to do that is to make it into something you do know.
For example, maybe you have an excellent idea for a story about a kid whose mum is an elephant trainer? But you don’t know anything about elephants or what goes into training them. Start reading up on it and once you have go to the zoo nearest you. See if you can interview the zoo keeper about how they keep their elephants. Ask yourself lots of questions: How happy are elephants to be trained? How much longer do they live in the wild than in captivity? Would your character have an ambivalent attitude to their mum’s job?
That’s a lot to learn. Maybe you can ground your story by setting it somewhere you’re familiar with, or giving your protag some aspect of yourself. I doubt anyone writes a story that’s entirely made up of stuff they don’t know. In fact, once you’ve researched it, you do know it.
Hmmm, I think I’ve come full circle: write what you know.
But remember that what you know includes everything you’ve learned, all your research, everything you’ve read, or heard or seen. So the more you read, and hear and see, the more you have to write about.