Chances are that if you’ve spent any time in the writing field, you’ve heard the phrase “Write what you know.” Because, obviously, writing what you know is the surefire way to get it right. The problem is that the phrase doesn’t actually mean what we often take it to mean at face value. If you follow write what you know literally, you are going to severely limit yourself as a writer.
Instead, consider a different approach to write what you know. Forget the facts. Forget your knowledge of art history or the automotive industry or classic literature. Put those aside. Those are not necessary for write what you know.
Instead, sit down at a coffee shop, preferably outside or at the window, and simply watch. Bring a notebook. Write down the color of a woman’s scarf, the slobber of an English bulldog. How do the couples on the street communicate? How do the parents?
When people say write what you know, don’t take it literally. Instead, give a reality to your book – no matter what the book’s reality is, by adding in the visceral scents and sounds. Do you come from a loud family? How do they interact at the dinner table compared to how your friend’s family interacts? Do your parents squabble or hold hands?
Most of what you write is going to come from the world around you. You may not know it, may not be able to pinpoint the origin of a style or a conversation or even a facial expression, but the chances are good that you’ve seen it somewhere on someone.
This seems like flummery, I know. After all, you will undoubtedly have an easier time writing what you know if what you know is the whole history of Baroque painting and you’re writing about a Baroque painter. But consider this, we now live in an age where all the information we could ever need is right at the tips of our fingers. Your freedom and independence from the confines of your knowledge, might just be the ticket to writing the book you really want to write, instead of the one you feel you will be best at.
Writing what you know is a feeling. I know something bad is going to happen. I know the monster will jump out. I know she’s in love with him. These are visceral gut reactions that transcend the setting, plot or characters of your book, but exist in the constant, part of being human, part of being alive.
And that’s why it’s so important to write what you know. You are adding the universal and oh-so-specific element of human nature to a book, the same human nature that will be in a different book. Whether you write sci fi or romance or mystery or introspective literature, you are taking your specific book and giving it the universality of shared experiences, tastes, noises and more.
Writing what you know can be fun. If you bake, what’s the bustle and hustle of the kitchen like? How do waitresses respond to little kids? Watch the world around you and draw inspiration from the every day.
Because books usually don’t touch on the every day. Books don’t talk about bathroom breaks or the long hours of work where nothing happens. Books don’t get bored, and for good reason. But you want to infuse the active writing of your book with more, with sensations, details, interactions that mimic the ones we see every day.
On one hand, it’s a lot easier to write about concrete information. On the other hand, write what you know and you’re going to get a much better book. ♦