Thursday, January 10, 2013

Write What You Know...Don'tcha Know?

He's not a Hemingway

"Write what you know."

I've heard this little sound bite in English classes, in formal writing workshops, and in informal writers' groups.

It's sound advice.

So long as you don't take it too literally.

Taken literally, we'd all be condemned to writing only what we personally experience.

Forget about post apocalyptic scenarios, demon summoning magicians, and lovers coming back from the dead, I'd be stuck writing about a 30 year old cisgendered, middle class white woman with a background in Instructional Design, a coffee obsession, and a penchant for fawning over the beauty of giant robots.

I got an Optimus Prime blanket for Christmas.
I can cuddle up with him anytime I want.

"Write what you know" isn't really about places or processes or things or events. 

The fact is, most of that can be covered with a bit of research, anything from reading travel guide descriptions to first hand accounts or actually talking to people who've been in said places or situations. (And with access to the Internet, that makes research a lot easier.)


"Write what you know" is about people. About our shared human behavior. Our common ground.

You may have never been in the situation of, say, firing a gun at an armed criminal. But you've no doubt been in other situations where fear and danger were prevalent. Maybe a car accident (or a near miss). Maybe a fight. Maybe you were diagnosed with a severe illness.

The point is: you know fear and you know danger. You've had adrenaline surges. You know how you react to a stressful situation or a pleasurable one. And, building on that, you can surmise how a character will react, what they will feel—whether they're in a car accident, breaking up with a lover, or discovering gold at the end of a rainbow—and write accordingly.

And when you write what you know - what you've felt - your readers will feel it too.

....human action cannot land before impulse, and impulse cannot land before that which triggers it. Each step is preceded by the step before it. You cannot shoot a gun without first touching it, nor take hold of it without first intending to, nor intend to without first having some reason, nor have a reason without first reacting to something, nor react to something without first giving it meaning and on and on. At many points before aiming a gun and pulling the trigger, particularly if the context is not unique, there are thoughts and emotions that others in similar situations also experienced. - The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker

What do you think? What are your experiences with "write what you know?" (Did it help? Did it hurt?)

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