The single, most used piece of writing advice ever, is write what you know. It’s good advice. It isn’t great advice, and I’d argue that there are much better (and much less vague) words of wisdom to bestow upon would-be writers. I’m sure I’ll touch on some of that in just a moment, but in the meantime, let’s tackle this.
Write What You Know.
First, why is this good advice? Simple, really; the more you know of something, the more accurately you can build a picture of it in your mind, and transcribe that picture to the page. If you’re a nurse, you should be able to visualize a hospital, imagine care-giving scenarios, and have a healthy vocabulary of all those tricky little medical terms nobody can pronounce.
If you’re a farmer, same deal.
Anything in life, at all. Every single thing that you are, that you do, that you observe with your senses—these are all things that you know, and should be able to accurately describe. Use that. It makes your fiction more real. More honest.
If you happen to be a trash collector, or a custodian, or even jobless, please, don’t despair over the belief that those things you know don’t make interesting stories. I feel like this is where the advice of writing what you know fails. A lot of people think that they don’t really know anything, or that the things they know aren’t interesting enough to constitute story telling. For some of those people, that may very well be true, but that does not mean that you shouldn’t write.
Most of us have within us stories that we need to tell. They come to us sometimes in a dream, or one of those Aha! moments, or even just because it’s a story that we, ourselves, want to read. The truth of fiction is that an overwhelmingly large majority of stories are fanciful, or other-worldly, and if all fiction was the everyday lives of nurses and trash collectors, nobody would fucking read it.
Fantasy authors create an entirely different world, sometimes with in-depth magic systems, sometimes where the entire rules and laws of physics are completely different from our own world. Some of these fantasy books sell a great deal, and there is not much there to anchor the reader in a recognized reality. In the writing, there is very little being written that is write what you know, but guess what, it doesn‘t matter.
How can fiction be good then, if you ignore what your high school English teacher said? Easily. That English teacher didn’t elaborate on what she meant.
Just because a fantasy/horror/sci-fi/whateverthefuck author has created a different world/monster/universe, it doesn’t mean they aren’t writing what they know. I’ll give a couple of examples. I am writing a fantasy novel right now. I created a different world, a different mythology, different races of men and women, different species of plants and animals, and a complete system of magic, loosely rooted in ancient pagan beliefs here on earth. The thing that anchors this fantasy novel to reality, and the thing that readers (I hope) can identify with, latch onto, and root for or against, is bits of familiar realism in an unfamiliar world.
In order to do this, I had to dig into myself and drag out what it is that I know, so I could fucking write it. There are several characters in my novel that have varying degrees of mental illness. One may suffer from depression, and another may be suffering from dementia, and little bits of schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder pop up as well. I can do this, and I can do it fairly accurately, because I worked in the mental health field for seven years. I can take my experiences there—my observations and whatnot—and I can write scenes with firsthand knowledge.
Substance abuse also plays a major role in this story. Several characters deal with it, and I can write those characters especially affectively, because I have dealt with substance abuse, personally, for about as long as I can remember.
The novel is not about mental illness or substance abuse. I did not write a novel based solely on what I know. I wrote a novel about a character who is a reluctant hero, tossed in with a group headed to save the world, who is far more powerful than she or anyone else may ever even realize. That character happens to be chronically depressed, and she abuses drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Fiction is not real. It can be whatever the hell the writer wants it to be. The thing that makes it feel real enough to picture, real enough to see the scene while forgetting the words are in front of your face, is when the reader connects with something they recognize from actual reality. It doesn’t matter that my characters are being chased by a black shadow that can steal the souls of men, or that they found shelter inside the skull of a giant, fallen god. When I write about substance abuse or mental illness, the entire story will seem more real because of it, because those things are things that I know.
The phrase should be more like, “Write with what you know.”
I don’t think the intention was ever to tell people to write entire stories based on the things that they know, and only those things that they know. Phillip K. Dick didn’t know shit about androids. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t know shit about orcs. Stephen King probably doesn’t know shit about burial grounds that bring the dead back to life. Androids, orcs, and ghosts are not what made those authors great. Injecting pieces of what they knew/know into their worlds, their characters, and their situations are what made the stories seem real, whether you’re in Middle-earth grab-assing with Frodo, or your little boy who got hit by a semi somewhere in Maine has climbed out of his grave and is cutting up your wife.
I think what any writer actually ought to do, is write what they like, and write the book that they would want to read. Along the way, it’s best to insert pieces of what you know into your characters and into the experiences in the story.
I would advise against writing a story about being a telemarketer, where the only action is waking up, going to work, leaving work, and going to bed, all goddamn week, just to get shitfaced on Friday and waste your whole weekend being hungover. That book sounds fucking terrible. A call center employee who keeps getting phone calls from his dead fiancé?—you might have something there. You probably don’t know shit about the afterlife, and ghosts, and whateverthefuck, but you damn sure know about call centers. Even though it may be about the supernatural, something completely unobserved by normal, average humanity, the detail and truth you write with while describing the atmosphere of the call center is what will make that story seem real. Also, if you happen to have lost a fiancé, nothing gets more real than that, and your readers will certainly pick up on the honesty.
Write with passion.
Write with longing.
Write with what you know.
It’s a tool, not a rule.