There is an old adage about writing, or maybe it’s advice from a very ancient English Lit teacher (not sure) but they saying goes that writers should write what they know.
The problem with this old chestnut is that:
- It’s too general
- It’s too restrictive
- If followed literally there would be a lot of really boring fiction
- It might keep an otherwise talented writer from writing
Are you always your own main character?
Based on this piece of advice, it would make sense that since you have to draw from what you know that you would use yourself as a template. You become the main character of all your stories because who do you know better than yourself? But that can lead to problems… Seriously, have you ever been a spy? Or a murderer? Or a preschool teacher? Probably not. So then how can you be your main character if your main character is one of those (or countless others)?
Should you use your own real life experiences in your fiction?
This one is tricky because sure, you could use your own real life experiences if you have experiences that are relevant to your story and plot. However (and this is a big one) you shouldn’t use the real life experiences of others. For example, let’s say you knew a nerdy guy in high school who was pants-ed on a regular basis by all the football players, and often cried at lunch, where he sat all by himself in the middle of the cafeteria because he had hygiene problems? If you used the real life experiences of this person, you could get sued. If that person read your book and recognized himself or herself in the story they could sue you and perhaps demand royalties and countless other things. You actually don’t have a right to use what happened to other individuals in your story.
You could of course take real life experiences and create a conglomerate, use a characteristic here or there – but thinly veiled stories of terrible or even wonderful things that happened to other people are bound to get you in trouble. Plus it’s kind of a cheat, and in my opinion, borders on plagiarism.
So how does a writer write what they know?
First of all, you can’t take this kind of advice in any literal sense – unless of course you have led an amazingly adventurous life. But you can weave into your stories the things you know and understand and have experienced. Like what – you may ask:
- Location. Anyplace you’ve ever visited or lived in is great fodder for stories. Especially places that have well known landmarks, are famous for something, have distinctive customs, local color, dialects, etc –
- Jobs. Any job you’ve ever held enables you to write about those fields and industries. I was a waitress for many years – I know restaurants, customers, tipping habits, what goes on in the kitchen – there are a lot of interesting tidbits there. Most industries have their own culture, rules and idiosyncratic behavior which can be used to enhance your story, your character’s life or even create a plot twist.
- Religion. Were you raised as a Catholic? Did you go to parochial school? Are you Jewish? Muslim? Presbyterian? Southern Baptist? Then you probably know how real people practice the religion (or don’t). Give us the inside scoop – do nuns really rap knuckles with rulers? How do you keep a yamika from slipping off your head? Does your church rock with music on Sunday mornings?
- Lifestyle. Are you gay? Are you straight? Are you a baby-boomer? Are you an Evangelical Christian? Are you rural or urban? East coast, west coast, northern Yankee, southern belle? First generation American? What is that culture like? Tell us about things we don’t know about it, not the usual stuff that you see on every television show or movie – something real that comes from actual experience and understanding.
- Family relationships. Did you grow up in the typical American family? A dad a mom and siblings. Were you raised by a single mom or dad? Did your parents divorce when you were a child? Were you raised by aunts or uncles or cousins or grandparents? Were you adopted? Did you grow up in foster care?
- Hobbies/Interests. Are you a great cook? Do you grow the best tomatoes in the western hemisphere? A do-it-yourselfer? Furniture refinisher? A gun enthusiast? A hunter? A fisherman? A hiker? Were you a boy scout or a girl scout? Do you scrapbook? Collect memorabilia? A film noir expert? Restore old cars? A mechanical whiz? All of these are things you know about and are probably passionate about.
- Experiences. Have you ever been lost or stranded? Been arrested? Had a car accident? Had an operation? Come close to death? Saved someone’s life? Gone scuba diving? Chased by a shark? Been stalked? Been bullied? Won a contest? Worked a bunch of really bizarre jobs? Been caught cheating? Finish school two years early? Met the Pope or a celebrity?
Putting what you know in perspective
While I agree that you should include the things you know, have experienced, and understand into your writing – I also believe you can’t restrict yourself to what you know – literally. After all, there is this little thing called research that writers use all the time. If your story is about crime solving there are thousands of books on the topic, there are local police stations where you could probably get an interview, or even a ride along. Google, Bing, and Yahoo all have enormous data bases which you can access at any time. Documentaries are available everywhere about everything under the sun. Heck, even people you know can tell you about things, professions, industries, etc that you want to know about or use in your story.
So yes, do write about what you know and what you don’t know research like crazy until you know it enough to write about it. You don’t have to be literal you just have to be convincing – all the good writers are.
Do you write what you know? How do you tackle the things you don’t know so you can write about them?