“Write what you know.”
Aspiring writers have received this sage advice for decades. And it is truly great advice. But what exactly does it mean?
Most people confuse writing what they know with writing what they know about. There is a big difference. It is the difference between your knowledge of automotive engine repair and why you love to work on cars and how you feel when you hold a socket wrench in your greasy-nailed hand.
But what most writers do is say, “I really love my dog, so I’ll write a novel in which the character and plot revolve around a kennel.” This is writing what you know about. And it is not intrinsically bad. In fact, it can be a great launching point for the setting or theme, as well as lending authority through accurate technical details.
But great books are great because of the connection the author weaves with the reader. Readers see themselves, if but a glimmer, in the characters. Because as human beings we all share an inexorable link, regardless of race, gender, or culture. And we respond to that authenticity at a cellular level.
For example, above when I wrote, “I really love my dog,” you didn’t picture my dog. You pictured your own dog, or another animal from your life. And you attached your own memories, thoughts, and emotions to that picture. You didn’t understand what I know, you related it to what you know.
So where am I going with this?
When you write, consider focusing less on the facts or the content, and instead more on how your characters see the world. And the easiest way to do that is to infuse the way you see the world. In other words, write what you know.
Let’s look at this situation: You main character gets assaulted in a bar fight. Does he run, does he punch back? Is he mad, confused, insulted, afraid? What would your own reaction be? How would you react in that situation?
Now understand, I’m not saying your writing needs to be autobiographical. I’m saying you can use your own thoughts and feelings to flesh out authentic characters that readers will respond to. You can also use other people you know well.
I have a friend and former coworker I’ll call Mike. Mike is a skeptic by nature. Not a pessimist or a cynic, but a skeptic. Meaning he won’t accept your case at face value just because you say so. If you want to persuade him to your side, you simply have to frame and position your argument properly.
This is something I know about Mike. And because I know him so well, I know how he will respond to any proposition or voiced opinion. If I ever decide to write a character similar to Mike, I can write them with conviction and honesty. And that character will feel genuine and will resonate with readers.
Because I was writing what I know.