Write what you know.
It is the mantra drilled into us by every single writing teacher, a stifling force to our creativity. From day one, it is preached to us that in order to write effectively, we must only stick to that which we hold intelligence on. We start to think then that we are limited only to what we live every day, and for most of us, that leaves only boring tidbits no story can be fully formed from. If I was only to write in my novel what I “experience,” it would be divested down to the following lines: I like pink and pit bulls and have an unhealthy shoe obsession. Would you like to hear about my seventeen thousand heels? After the first twenty shoes, your eyes would glaze over.
I’ve often thought that every person, no matter how “interesting” their life seems on the outside, is convinced at one point that they lead a boring existence no one wants to hear about. For a writer, this is particularly painful. You’ve got stories bubbling at the surface but you can’t bring yourself to put them down on the page, perhaps because you think people won’t like what you write, or you worry they’ll flop down on their pillow and drool. Or maybe you feel limited by your subject matter, like what you do every day as a person isn’t worthy of a book.
I remember being told that my Fiction 1 end story in college was flawed because it was about two mobsters feeding a body to alligators in the Everglades. (Entitled “Death Date with Feline Aristocracy,” it endlessly amused one college roommat who found the violence to be utterly enthralling. Obviously, I am not a mobster, and I’ve never attempted to hide a corpse with a chomping beast. My teacher kept trying to encourage me to base my stories in college, but I wanted nothing more than to escape from that world of term papers, finals, and unneeded melodrama. (Now, with the advent of New Adult, I consider sometimes dropping back to that time of my life.) I created two characters with foul mouths that would make mine pale in comparison and a strange dislike for the feline companion of an ex-girlfriend, more unlike anything I had ever experienced.
I really struggled with that story, and I think now that it is because I did not “write what I know.” I didn’t do the research required, and so the story came off very flat. Two characters stuck in different situations but never really changing. I think now if I went back and revised it, perhaps I could imbue it with something more. Now I know that I have to do the required background checking before I construct, otherwise I’m going to end up with an empty-feeling story. Death Date, for all its flaws, showed me that I love to write the gritty, morbid side of life. It took a year and a half and several more failed works to realize that was what I wanted truly from writing. I’ve given in to my love for Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Charles Dickens–authors who could rock the macabre and make it impactful.
Not only does your story end up reflecting your tastes, but it echoes the assumptions you make (whether or not you want it to). Now I understand that write what you know is by no means, write what you live every day. It is instead, write what you observe, the definitive qualities of human nature that transcend period and plot. We should as writers be creating a framework for our characters that is identifiable. Often, I say my characters are just molds of each other with intrinsic differences made to better fit them to their situation. I think we all start with that structure, saying “I will write a rebel” or “I will write a mousy girl” and then from there on we imbue those constructions with personality and life. We cannot experience all of those people–we are who we are, and no other–but we certainly can draw from the people we do know.
I think this is especially true in contemporary romance, as you’re playing out scenarios that potentially could happen in today’s day and age. As a reader, I want to feel like people with these characteristics exist in real life and I might meet them in a crowded street somewhere. Jennifer Lohmann’s debut novel, Reservations for Two, is a good example of this. Featuring a chef and food blogger, both hero and heroine have relatable problems, insecurities, and strengths. It is this normalcy of Reservations for Two that really captured me. I could see the hero Dan out at different culinary events, and I could feel his love for food. When a character feels so multi-dimensional to you that you know them as well as you would a co-worker or friend, then the author has done their job right. They’ve in a sense, written what they know.
In writing historical fiction, I have also learned that what you know can be greatly changed. When I began the process for what would become the first of my now four novel attempts, I started trying to research as I went. I realized that I did not have enough information, and I threw myself into reading every single regency fact book I could possibly find. I’m still doing that, because I think that in order to write this era I must completely immerse myself in everything it was to be a 19th century British citizen. I have also expanded my search into Victorian times, when the crime statistics were most documented and there’s more primary source material. Now, I can tell you, I know 19th century thieving vernacular, of trials and punishments in their justice system, and the different rookeries and what they were best known for. I couldn’t tell you that two years ago. I am again, despite all those protests I had, writing what I know.
We write of love, of lies, of tragedy and happiness that we have not lived but have seen other people go through. It is those self-evident truths that we should know by now, these basic statements about humanity that we as writers must represent. Our duty is to present the world as we see it, but we should not be constricted by our own mundane lives.