‘Write what you know’. As writers, we most likely hear this advice often throughout our writing career. For beginning writers, it’s one of the most misleading pieces of advice they can ever be given. Does it mean, that writers can only write about what we know and have experienced? We can only write about our lives? Because, lets face it. Life isn’t very interesting (this excludes the lives of Creative Non Fiction authors). Can a farmer only write about farmers, and can a pilot only write about pilots? Who wants to read about Sally, the accountant, as she tackles a difficult tax return? What about Bob, the doctor, trying to find medicine to give to his patients? *Yawn* Not me.
No, as writers, we are not restricted to writing about our daily lives. Sure, we should have an understanding about what we write – it makes the story we tell more realistic and believable – but we don’t have to have experience it first hand. So how can we get that understanding? I mean, George Lucas has never flown to distant planets in a spaceship, JRR Tolkien has never battled with hideous orcs, and JK Rowling has never ridden a broomstick while throwing balls through hoops, so how did they do it?
With a little help from their imagination. Using our imagination, we can experience what would otherwise be impossible. Never flown in a spaceship? I’m flying in a plane would be a similar experience. Fighting orcs? What about play fighting with a giant of a man. What about being chased by a dragon? (Do not try this at home, but) wouldn’t being almost hit by a car/bus/truck be similar? My house is near a slight bend in the road. When checking the mail, it can be unnerving to watch a car approach. The cars look like they’re just about to hit me, when they follow the road away.
What else can we do to have an understanding? Well, we can research. We are very lucky to live in an age with technology, and we should take full advantage of it. Search it on the internet. Contact experts in the field. Ask someone who has done what your asking about. I’m sure if you asked someone, they would be happy to assist you.
Another thing we can do is act. If you’re writing an action scene, get your husband/wife/brother/sister/friend to help you act it out. Go through the moves. One of my chapters in PT contains a scene where the MC is swimming in the ocean. I plan on waiting until summer, then going for a swim, so I can feel first hand the feel of the cool water on my skin. If you can, visit a handgun range, to try shooting guns, to get a feel for the recoil. What does it feel like? What does it sound like? Is the gun heavier than you expected? Lighter?
Probably the best thing to help you to ‘write what you know’ is emotions. We all know what it is like to be happy, scared, angry. Use these emotions to your advantage. Take Black Beauty for example. Anna Sewell, the author, isn’t a horse, so how could she write in the mind of one? Simple. She gave it human emotions. The power to be happy, sad, angry, surprised, fearful. Even if our characters are monsters, or ailens, they’re going to be given our human emotions.
Writing what you know can be very difficult, if you try to write by using your ordinary life for inspiration. But following those tips can broaden your knowledge of what you know, which not only gives you the chance to write about what you have never experienced, but also makes your writing more believable. And isn’t that what we want?