Some of the most common writing advice out there is deceptively simple: “Write what you know.”
But if people only ever wrote what they know, from things they have personally experienced, we as readers would be woefully deprived of fantasy, science fiction, and just about every fiction bestseller out there. So why, if that piece of advice has no merit, is it bandied about like it’s the latest writing epiphany? The answer is simple, honestly.
What you know and what you experience aren’t always the same thing.
In the first chapter of my book To The Third Power**, there’s an incident that happens to the protagonist, which I can reveal the basics of without actually spoiling the plot of the book.
The character is a young girl, less than a decade old, and she’s playing alone on a school playground – alone, aside from her imaginary pet/friend, Dylan. A group of bullies approach her and destroy the thing she’d been making in the sand. Furious, she actually physically attacks the lead bully, punching him, despite her smaller size. This, of course, infuriates the bully, who proceeds to grab her and drag her with his cronies’ help over to a large, fenced off machine up against the wall of the school. It’s a 1960s/70s era air conditioning unit – almost two stories tall and at least twenty feet square within the fence. They throw the girl into the fence (unlocked likely from recent maintenance work or something similar), pull the door shut and lock the dangling padlock.
Trapped, the girl screams for help as the bullies laugh and leave her there. At her imaginary friend’s urging, she climbs the access ladder to the top of the air conditioner with the intention of jumping to the outdoor stairwell that is very near to the edge of the fence.
This is where the history diverges from the fiction, because believe it or not – until this very moment, this incident actually happened…to me. I was eight or nine years old – at most eleven – and the gap between the stairs and the top of the AC unit was less than two feet. I made a running jump, skinned my knees when I landed in the concrete stairwell, and then quickly ran home in tears.
In the book, however, things go a bit differently. As you can see from this current Google Earth view of the back of the school in question, the gap is even larger now than it was then. This gap is what the events in the book hinge on. The unit was larger and closer to the stairs originally – there are now two smaller units within the “cage” and both are too far from the stairs for anyone short of a parkour expert to make that jump. In the book, the little girl has her first encounter with her own peculiar supernatural abilities atop that air conditioning unit, and gets home with only skinned palms from being thrown into the “cage.”
But without my experience to drive it, would I have even been able to imagine Karyn’s predicament? Without my own experiences being bullied and taunted, could I have given life to the characters in my novel?
Write what you know.
There’s a big difference between the meaning of that phrase when it comes to fiction and non-fiction, however. I’m in a position (though not a unique one) of writing a fiction and non-fiction title at the same time. And while I can only use my informed history to extrapolate and imagine what is going on for my characters in the fiction title, when it comes to the non-fiction, “write what you know” becomes the literal admonition that most writers take it as.
The picture I’m using for this post is a mock-movie poster I made for a digital art class, a few years ago. The poster that would inspire the title of my long anticipated pet memoir, Beyond The Rainbow Bridge. When writing this non-fiction title, however, my memories and experiences form the meat of the book – the entire narrative consists of me simply writing what I know. Or, at least, writing what I remember.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier Storyteller’s Howls, I have a soft spot for pet memoirs. Wanting to write my own is beyond wanting to add my name to the illustrious names of Ted Kerasote, James Herriot, Vicki Myron, John Grogan, Gwen Cooper, and the countless others. It’s about wanting to create a lasting memorial for all the pets I’ve loved and lost in my life. To memorialize all the little triumphs, tragedies, funny moments, and unique personalities ranging from that of a tiny newt up to a big dog. And in doing that, I will honestly be writing exactly what I know.
There are three people in the world who have known most of the pets I have had – my parents, and myself. For them, and for me, and of course for all my precious pets who’ve gone on beyond the rainbow bridge, I want to get this book written. Even if I never get it out there.
Ultimately, that’s what it means to write what you know. Whether you’re using your knowledge to spin a creative fiction, or simply memorializing the facts. Writing what you know is still a good bit of advice for all writers.
What do you write about? What drives your passion to create? Tell me in the comments!
(**To read To The Third Power as it’s edited, influence the edit, and maybe even get your name in the dedication, join me on Patreon!
For only $1 a month, you get to read everything I write, including getting blog posts up to a week early sometimes, getting exclusive artwork, and more! For just $5 a month, you will get your name in the dedication of the current book I’m working on!* And there are more reward levels with even more awesome rewards. Check it out today!
*Must remain a patron for 3 months during the editing process of the current project to get your name in the dedication. Three months of funded patronage ($5 a month and above) during a current book project are required to have your name in the dedication for that project. Patrons cannot receive this perk twice in a row – may only be mentioned in a dedication once every other project.)