Write What You Know? I Don't Think So! by @EdenBaylee
How does a writer get an idea for a story? I’ve read several blogs where authors got annoyed when asked this question. I don’t get annoyed, but it does make me think. It’s not an easy question to answer.
The old maxim “Write what you know” comes to mind, but what does this really mean? Does it mean the author has lived his or her characters’ lives?
I’ve written erotic fiction, psychological suspense, and mystery, and though a lot of who I am has shaped my female characters, I have certainly not lived their lives. The protagonists have been strong women who have loved deeply, travelled the world, had sex with men—sometimes multiple men at the same time.
My characters are much more interesting than I am, and that’s how I want them to be.
You can infer what you like, but I believe fiction should be more than just thinly veiled reflections of authors’ lives. As writers, we should not limit ourselves to what we know.
I can assure you I have not experienced everything I’ve written. So how can I write about the beauty of a place without actually having been there? How can I convey the magic of falling in love in a foreign land if I’ve never set foot in the country? The answer is I’ve fallen in love before—that is the part I know. Along with fear, longing, lust, and a range of other emotions, the remainder must come from research and my imagination. The measure of good writing is how successfully I can connect my fiction to my readers—on both an emotional and an imaginary plane.
There are other guidelines for where we can find our ideas. I like to write what I want to know. As a reader, it satisfies me to learn something new with each book. I approach writing in a similar fashion—I want to share something new with the audience. In my research, I'm making discoveries that I hope to present in a fresh and compelling narrative. I write about what intrigues me. I write what I want to read.
I’ve always considered “Write what you know” a frustrating piece of advice. New writers might even take it at face value to avoid taking risks with their own writing. A good writer shouldn’t be afraid to explore new points of view and create imaginative worlds.
For me, the saying is not event-driven but has to do with empathy for the characters. It’s about the emotions associated with events. The extent to which I can relate these emotions to an experience, whether real or imagined, is what breathes life into characters and their stories.
Good writing is good story telling, so it’s important to bring personal experiences into a book if they make for an interesting tale. If they don’t, then nobody wants to read what you know anyway.
It would be boring.
Instead, it’s more useful to spin a tale into something fantastical for the reader, something they’ve never experienced. This is where a writer’s imagination collides with the facts. This is what makes for good storytelling.
Finally, authority and authenticity are important to readers. If you don’t know something, research it. Don’t know what it’s like to commit murder? Figure it out without actually killing someone. Alternatively, interview a murderer or read a memoir of one. Just remember people lie. If you don’t know the difference between Chardonnay and Muscadet, look it up. There’s this thing called the Internet ... and libraries. And if you’re writing about a culture different from your own, please take the time to research it and then ask people from that culture to read your work. Out of respect for them, it’s important to get it right. Some narratives are not mine to tell if I can't do it properly.
So … if you’re a writer of fiction, what does “write what you know” mean to you?
Please free to share. 😊