Write What You Know: Good Advice or Bad?

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One of the oldest bits of writing advice is: Write what you know. I remember being told this as a young writer and thinking ‘But I’m too young to know anything.’ Indeed, taken at its most literal there would be many fewer plays by Shakespeare since he’d certainly never been to Italy where many of his plays are set; there would be no books by Stephen King since he’s not telekinetic, a vampire or a survivor of the apocalypse; and there would be no Fifty Shades of Grey since E.L. James was never (as far as I know) a virginal secretary playing S&M sex games with her billionaire boss.

Stephen King was not himself a Firestarter. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

So, what to make of this bit of advice that other writers seem to simply ignore. Should you ignore it too? No, actually I don’t think so. I think it is good advice in a number of useful ways.

Method Writing

Here’s another bit of advice, if you’re serious about writing take an acting class. Acting is one of the primary tools of stage, television, and film so it’s good for you to know a few things about it. And, there are times when you’re writing that you should be using what’s often called “The Method.” Briefly, this a system of acting where the actor recalls an experience in their own life similar to the one in the scene and taps into the emotions they themselves felt to better perform the scene. You can do this too in your stories.

So, you don’t have to have lost your wife to write a story like Love Story. No matter how young you are you’ve lost someone in your life. Even if only a distant relative or a beloved pet. Obviously, how you felt and what you did when you lost a cat isn’t going to give you everything you need to know about losing a spouse, but it’s a beginning point. You can mine and amplify those feelings as a way to begin to understand the story.

Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw played doomed lovers in Love Story. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Observation

If things haven’t happened to you, maybe you know someone who has experienced more. Sticking with the idea of losing a spouse, maybe that’s happened to someone you know. Their experiences can inform your writing. Now, try not to be a literary vampire—you shouldn’t just take people’s lives and write about them, particularly if you want to maintain those relationships. But you can take small observations about others and put them into your work. Sometimes the empathy you felt while watching a friend experience pain is what you need to apply to your characters more than anything else.

Change What You Know

Otherwise known as research. I don’t need to tell you how to research a subject. But while we’re on this topic, I want to mention The Kubler-Ross model or the Five Stages of Grief as I’ve found it tremendously helpful. And no, not only when writing about death. We feel grief for all sorts of reasons. The end of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of innocence, the breakup of a friendship. If you think about, grief is an important element of almost every story worth telling. So, you should take a good look at the stages of grief and make sure you’re remembering to include at least some of them.

Mix It Up

I write a mystery series about a former cop turned private-eye. When I started, I didn’t know much about that. What I did for myself was set the series in a city I knew well in a time when I lived there. This turned out to be a really good idea. For one thing, it makes the writing easy because I know half of the story and only have to research part of it. And, the level of veracity that I bring to the city of that period bleeds over to the rest of the story. I don’t mean that I’m fudging parts of the story—I’m researching them. But the authenticity of one part of the story bleeds over to the entire story.

Marcia Clark (here played by Sarah Paulson) does her research at the O.J. trial. Photo courtesy of Fox Studios.

Actually, Write What You Know

This is strategic. Hollywood loves an expert. If you’re a doctor or a lawyer who’s always wanted to write then, yes, write about those things. Marcia Clark, the prosecutor from the O.J. trial, now writes mysteries. I can guarantee you, it wasn’t hard for her to get an agent. If you’ve got an area of expertise, use it.

Over the course of a writing career, you will likely feel different ways about these bits of advice. Certainly, the idea of ‘writing what you know’ has taken on different meanings in my life at different times. It doesn’t mean write your life, though many writers have begun with Roman à clefs; it does mean use your life in your writing.

4 Replies to "Write What You Know: Good Advice or Bad?"

  • comment-avatar
    Robbert Smit March 16, 2019 (4:48 pm)

    Write what you know and expand on it. Imagine what you can with research. Fine advice and insight. Thank you.

  • comment-avatar
    Hank Isaac March 16, 2019 (5:04 pm)

    I think “write what you know” has long been taken literally and I don’t think that the literal meaning is intended. At least not in today’s world. I believe it’s about “crossover experience.” The legendary screenwriter, Stewart Stern (who was my mentor & teacher) talked about his being trapped in a panicky situation when he was a young boy. He used that sense memory to write about a completely different panicky situation which was happening to one of his grownup characters. Not similar at all, yet totally similar if you consider how it made him feel.

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