Write What You Know – debunked (by this author)
by Sheri Williams
As a writer you hear so many rules and regulations, then there are the suggestions and the idioms. And of all of these, my absolute least favorite is “Write what you know!”
The thing about this particular “rule?” It’s pointless. (Most writing rules are) Writing what you know would leave the world full of the most boring books ever. Let me ask you this?
Does Stephen King have intimate knowledge of sentient, murderous cars? Or killer dogs? Or killer clowns?
Does J.K. Rowling really have such an in depth knowledge of magic and the magical world?
Did J.R.R. Tolkien have elves and orcs in his life to help him write the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings?
No. No. And yeah you guessed it, No.
What do multi-published authors do?
What all three of those very famous authors did have was knowledge of humans. And themselves. And the things in their lives that fueled their desire to write in the first place. Then, they, you guessed it, made stuff up. Cause that’s what authors do. We. Make. Stuff. Up.
Yes we all add bits of pieces of our lives and people we know and things we’ve encountered into our stories, but that’s just the flavoring to the main dish. You know? My favorite instance of this is J.K. Rowling, the master herself. Those dementors that scared us all to shivering piles of fear? That was how she related her depression. And holy smokes did it work. It comes across as a soul sucking entity which depression is, but she made up these dark evil creatures to get across that one aspect of her life. That’s what we authors do. This is the only way “write what you know” works. If you take what you know and morph it, mold it, squish it into something else.
But I don’t think what she did in the Dementor’s case, or what I do when I write serial killers who still love their moms, is the same thing as “write what you know” I think it’s just using life experience to enhance your imagination. When I hear “write what you know” I hear; write about growing up in Connecticut and then moving to the south. Write about being a white woman who has never left the country and is married with two kids. And while I quite enjoy my life, reading about it might possibly (no, absolutely!) be boring for someone else.
So why the rule?
For me this particular “rule” (I use quotes here cause I don’t really see it as a rule but more of a suggestion that the publishing world seems to be stuck on) is just one more way to keep people in their particular lane. And I’m not a huge fan of that, in any aspect of life. And now we’ve come full circle to one of my previous blogs for 10 Minute Novelists. Research. I routinely write about the 1800’s and yet I live here and now, so what do I do? I research. The same goes for everything else I write about that has no real basis in my life. Serial Killers. Elves. Trolls. Aliens. All things I’ve never seen in real life (gasp!) but I write them. I write them all. (I like to think of myself as a rebel)
And this same method works for if you are a fully able bodied person who wants to write about a disabled character or a person of color who wants to write about a white character (research and write with respect, this is a rule I live by). There’s room at the table for all writers, who want to write all the things, whether or not it’s something you know first hand, or just something you want to explore, or something that just turns on your writerly brain.
So, how do you feel about “write what you know”? Is it a hard and fast rule for you? Or is it something that like me, you look at askance and wonder who ever came up with it in the first place?