When I started writing, I heard about “writing what you know.”
I ignored that piece of advice, because:
- For one, I didn’t know much about anything; and
- Two: most of what I knew was boring and uninspiring.
So, rather than writing about what I know, I wrote about what I wanted to know: what I learned. It turns out that this strategy puts me in good company.
Bestselling author Dan Brown makes the writing process a learning adventure too. Here he is on “writing what you know”:
You should write something that you need to go and learn about. Make the writing process a learning process for you… my learning, through the process of the novel, through research and talking to specialists, was really what kept me motivated.
Write what you know by researching, then use your imagination
When you write fiction, you’re often writing about things you know zero about. I’m currently ghostwriting a series of historical romances for a client. What do I know about living in Georgian England? Nothing — but I can research, and I can imagine.
Writers of crime fiction, historicals, science fiction and fantasy are all writing based on their imagination. They start with reality and transform it. If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you may know that George R.R. Martin’s epic is based on the history of the War of the Roses.
George R.R. Martin is a genius. He’s taken dry-as-dust English history and turned it into wonderful entertainment, via the magic of his imagination.
Fiction authors are liars who tell the truth
Readers read fiction to learn about people — about themselves. In novels, fictional people might be in the form of robots or rabbits (Watership Down), but the robots and rabbits react to circumstances in a way readers can understand.
Novelists lie in order to reveal truths.
Consider Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bennet. Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813. Why do we read Lizzie’s story with pleasure 200 years later? Lizzie isn’t real; she’s a figment of Austen’s imagination.
And yet. We see ourselves and the people around us in Pride and Prejudice, and we can be inspired by it.
We might remember Lizzie’s courage in refusing Mr Collins and learn to stand up for what we believe. When Lizzie’s taken in by Wickham’s lies, we can learn that it’s usually a mistake to accept others at their own value.
Did Jane Austen write a morality tale? No, she wrote entertainment, but she revealed truths. Lizzie and Darcy are proof of that; they live in every reader’s imagination.
You may know more than you think
Forget “write what you know.” You know more than you think and you’re learning every day.
Who knows. One day you may write another Pride and Prejudice, with characters who come alive and live on as long as there are readers.
Veteran author, copywriter, and blogger Angela Booth loves helping fellow writers. Visit Angela’s site for tips and strategies for writers.