One of the most misunderstood pieces of advice about writing. Ever.
“Write what you know” isn’t about events, says author Nathan Englander. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? Jealousy? Longing? Loss?
Quote from Jason Gots article in Big Think
We have great ideas for stories, but they’re set in countries we’ve never visited or lived in, occupations we’ve never held, closed communities we’ve never experienced, other worlds even, or the future or the past — how then do we provide the verisimilitude, the appearance of truth, that fires our stories into striking, memorable tales that make the reader live in those lives, think about them, enjoy them?
A writer is free to write of times that never happened, in worlds that never existed, and of people never born or died. We do this not just with our imaginations, but with the foundations of authenticity in what we can learn and what we know and what we’ve felt, done, seen, tasted, smelled, touched and heard.
Step one would be research. Time to hit the ‘net, the books and maps and get the lowdown on the components of the story you don’t already know well.
A writer who wishes to include a scuba diving scene in their action novel will do best by taking a short course and doing a dive, even at shallow depth — it will give the sound, the feel of the water, the light under the surface, the shades of colour the diver will see, but even if you can’t manage that, you can still use research to get the feel of those things through the magic of films and audio files, gain anecdotal knowledge through talking to divers, or reading about it. Particularly for understanding what the deeps are like, or difficult dives like exploring wrecks, such resources are invaluable.
The second part is to take all that you’ve learned about the subject — be that the pubs in a small corner of Wales, or what diving on the WWII ship and plane wrecks in the Solomons or Philippines is like, or even how a glass blower forms his products and plies his trade — and add the details of experiences you’ve had that match the events in these worlds/occupations.
You might not have been in a plane crash, but you might have been rear-ended by someone on the road. Recalling the violence against the body when a moving object hits a stationary one is a salutary lesson in crash physics. Using those recalled sensations and memories aids in writing realistic scenes of any kind. Your character might be facing a jump out of a plane without a parachute, while you’re only facing the dentist and his drill, but the feelings and reactions can be used and expanded.
Writing what we “know” also means getting to know what we want to write about. It means thinking and observing the minutiae all around so we can reproduce it recognisably and meaningfully in our stories. Even in fantasy and science fiction, we write from a human perspective, one we all share. The worlds are no more fantastic than this one for the characters who live there, what matters to them is the same as what matters to any of us — how we deal with the obstacles presented.
Authenticity is a powerful tool in the quest for suspended disbelief. When something sounds reasonable, plausible, logical, the reader is often happy to believe in it, even if it is something that never existed and never could. Making the fantastical seem matter of fact is an art in itself. One must have sufficient working knowledge of what can be in order to create something that cannot and have it believed.