“Write what you know,” is a common proverb amongst writers. I get it…a little. Okay it’s just a little bit ambiguous. In terms of fiction it can sound a little silly because, well…it’s fiction! We’re making it up. So what does “write what you know” mean for a fiction writer?

Some people feel their writing is best when based on their life experiences because they know it happened to them. The characters, places, and events are fresh in their mind and they know they can make it believable and meaningful. Others think it means to write what they truly believe, their philosophies of life, and what they feel in their heart. Some write what they have studied a long time, such as history or science, and they use those things as catalysts for their fiction. Thus we get things like historical fiction and science fiction.

I’m not a history buff and my science is really lousy. I know a lot about theater and music and dance, but I don’t have much interest in writing a novel around any of my experiences there, (though let me tell ya, there’s plenty of vibrant character and drama to fill volumes.)

I don’t have much interest in writing fiction based on my own life. I know this for certain because I did write a novel based on my early teen years. It is in a drawer and it will never see the light of day. It’s not that it’s awful and beyond fixing. There are parts of it that I think are quite touching and profound, there are characters I love and the plot has potential. But overall I’ve decided it’s too close for comfort and it didn’t ring true to my reasons for being a writer.

So what could I write?

I have always had a love of fantasy. Though I read widely, many of my favorite books are fantasy and I always had ideas for stories constantly ticking in my head. A fantastical image would come to mind or I’d observe something and think “what if…” But I resisted this urge. Why? For several reasons.

1. I didn’t think I was creative enough or really had the skill to pull it off.
2. Let’s face it. Fantasy is a bit of a bloated market, particularly if you want to write about vampires, werewolves, or zombies. (Which thankfully I don’t.)
3. Does anyone think that fantasy writers are real writers? I wanted to be taken seriously!

Eventually I got over my hesitations. I wrote down my ideas and my current work-in-progress is fantasy. I am loving it. What does this have to do with writing what I know? Lots.

In order for fantasy to be believable, I feel it is essential to include what you know so that the human connection is real. The real world and the fantasy world need to be touching in some way or else it is meaningless. The point of fantasy (for me anyway) is to enter a different world and come back to my own with a fresh perspective. Great fantasy can be a powerful medium for change and progress in an individual. Great fantasy can help you solidify what you know deep inside yourself.

I know what it’s like to be heartbroken. I know what it’s like to have joy. I know confusion, denial, sin, and forgiveness. I know what it’s like to climb a mountain, to dive off a cliff, to bare children, and I know the fear of not knowing. All my experiences and the things I know inform my fantastical, completely unrealistic writing.

And so I don’t worry so much about writing what I know. I write what I love and also I write what I desperately want to know. I keep writing until I figure it out.

Define “write what you know.” What does that mean to you?

One comment

  1. I really thought about this one a few years ago. And, honestly, I came to a pretty similar conclusion as you did. Writing what I know doesn’t mean I have to write about a mom in Utah. It means to write what I KNOW. Like you said, joy, sorrow, love, hate, fear, pain. If I didn’t know those things, I don’t think my writing would be worth the paper I put it on.

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