Write What You Know: What does it really mean?

Being an author, I follow and interact with other authors. I read their blogs as I hope they do mine. I post on their social pages. I stay abreast of their releases. I post congratulations and words of encouragement as they progress along their author journeys.

Recently, one such author posted a blog discussing the old cliched advice of authors of “write what you know.” This particular author did not particularly like this phrase and thought that on the face of it such advice was impossible. How can one write about unicorns and fairies when we live in a world of traffic jams and taxes was the essence of their statement.

The author did go on to say that part of the “work around” this impossibility is commit yourself to learning about what it is you want to write about. Research, education, and experience, even in fictional things, will allow you to write with authority. 

Well, if you have researched, become educated, and experienced something then wouldn’t you know it? Wouldn’t that make the adage true?

But for me, writing what I know means writing what I choose and what I want. I’m not writing a book for someone else. I’m writing a book for a story that I want to tell. The only way to tell such a story is to KNOW what story it is that you want told. I’m not writing stories on-the-fly with no concept or ideas of what the story needs to be. I’m writing the story I know I want to tell. The details of those stories may include elements that I’m familiar with because that familiarity offers some comfort to me as an author or plays a role in the story but I don’t limit myself to only ideas and concepts of which I am an expert in.

One of my books is about time travel. I don’t know anything about time travel. Is it possible? I don’t know. How would it work? I don’t know. What would the ramifications be if time travelers changed the past? I don’t know. 

I know nothing about time travel but I still wrote about it. 

You don’t have to have intimate, first-hand knowledge of something to write about it. You don’t have to spend hours becoming an expert in a subject to create fictional works that include said subject. That’s the glory of fiction, it’s not real so it can be whatever you want it to be as an author and creator.

Now will that fiction make sense to the readers or make for a compelling component of the story? That’s something more subjective to each individual but if it is the story you want told then tell it the way you it told.

But I will take it one step further. When it comes to writing what I know, I try not to take liberties with things that are sensitive subjects. I don’t write about the challenges and fears of “coming out” and the emotional struggles of those who consider themselves gay or transgender. 

I don’t know about those struggles. I know people who have dealt with them but I hardly thinks that makes me qualified to write about such things. And fictional time travel is a far different cry from the very real and difficult emotional, personal, and other stresses and struggles of coming to terms with these identity questions and the decisions to go public about them.

Sometimes as an author you have to decide what lines you are willing to cross and which ones you aren’t  You have to decide what topics you are willing to discuss even if you have no direct experience or expertise with. You have to decide what fictional elements you want to invent, which you want to leverage from fictional works that came before yours, and what creative liberties you may want to take with those elements to make them feel fresh or consistent with your story. And at the same time, what factual elements or real-world situations you feel comfortable addressing, knowing how to address sensitive subjects with respect, or when to avoid subjects all together.

Some people may feel that exclusion of certain groups from works might be a sign of sort of disparity, disregard, or dislike of those excluded. And while I’m sure there are times when that is the case, that exclusion might actually be a sign of respect from the author who feels they can’t do justice to the complex emotions involved with those areas. 

While we are talking cliches, another is “if you can’t say anything nice then perhaps you shouldn’t say anything at all.” By not talking, you are being respectful. Sure, the phrase is more geared towards keeping others from saying anything rude to someone else but it could also be taken as perhaps you shouldn’t write about things that you don’t know. I can make assumptions but would those assumptions show the proper respect to what those in those situations endured? If I make an assumption about time travel that turns out to be wrong 50 years down the road then who cares but if I make a bad assumption about something very real and very personal as someone wrestling with their identity then it could have disastrous effects. I’d rather show respect by not saying something that could be wrong by not saying anything at all.

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