WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW!


Do you believe in this?

I used to think I didn’t. Now I’m a little less sceptical of the saying.
You see, I used to take the expression literally.
My fiction contains supernatural races, such as (predominantly) werewolves. I describe the transformation from human to wolf. I show the wolf’s race to capture a meal and his/her chow down on it.
Surely, if it went without saying that writer’s only ‘wrote what they knew’ … then I’d be in a straight jacket already?
Anyway, someone brought this up recently, when I was chatting to some writer friends about settings in the US for a new project. I wanted to write a UK MC, and stick her somewhere real forestry in the US.
Why? For the simple reason that when I wrote my opening scene, the voice of the male character she’s conversing with had—in my head—a slightly southern US accent.
Then, one of the members of the group piped up with: Why are you making more work for yourself by ensuring you have to do research (or words to that effect)? Why not just set it where you live? Isn’t it a common saying to ‘write what you know’?
My initial thought was ‘poppycock’.
One: where I live no way has the correct setting.
Two: if I only wrote what I knew into my work, my characters would lead a very boring life—or certainly not an exciting enough one that folks would want to read about them.
But that was a couple weeks ago. And since then, the irritating little sentence has been brewing in my mind, taunting me, whispering at me in insistence to figure out how it applies to my work.
This morning, I believe I discovered the answer. Said answer may well have booted my scornful attitude of the saying aside.
Let’s take a look at why.
What do I write?

Werewolves.

Seriously? Is that it? I asked myself.

Well … um … okay, I write about (1) relatable and believable relationships.

Un-hun … go on.

Um … I write about (2) love, (3) destiny & fate.

Un-hun … and …

::Sigh:: I write about (4) self-discovery. (5) Finding ‘The One’. (6) Self-acceptance. (7) Battles of life and the willingness to fight to overcome them if you believe something is worth the effort. (8) Going to the ends of the earth for those you believe in. (9) Emotions—control of/lack of control of.

Bingo!

(Yes, I really did hold this conversation with myself—no comments on this are necessary ::stare::).

If I had more time to ponder, I’m pretty certain the list would go on and on. But even after coming up with just this short list, my initial response was: Huh? Really? I have all of that in my work?
The answer is YES!

Without even realising it, I have spent the past 5.8 novel attempts ‘writing what I know’. Just because all the werewolf stuff is made up (honestly, doctor, it is), doesn’t mean I haven’t drawn on my other life experiences (um … ignore how wrong that sounds) to portray them in a realistic light in my writing.
Let’s take a look at those I listed off the top of my head and see how they got there.

1) Relatable & believable relationships.
I’ve had a lot of relationships. Not all of them good. Not all of them boyfriends/partners/whatnot. I mean folks who have crossed my path and played a part (however big or small) in my life. My ripe-ish age of 38 (almost 39) certainly helps with this because I’ve had plenty of years to cram in meeting a whole lot of people to study and spend time with.

2) Love.
I am in love. And I also love. ’Nuff said.

3) Destiny & fate.
I know some folks don’t believe in that twaddle. I, however, do. I believe that things in life happen for a reason (for example, each time a submission is turned down, I channel my thoughts along the lines of: it’s not meant to be/they’re not the right publisher/agent/whatever). I believe every person who enters my life (in whatever way, shape or form) has done so for a reason.

And don’t forget the saying ‘what doesn’t kill ya makes ya stronger.’ Personally, I’d be whacking that saying right in here along with these two words.

4) Self-discovery.
Yeah, this is a hard one. Self discovery can be something as simple as me finally figuring out that writing was what I want to do. It can be figuring out I’m not the greatest Mum in the world (though my bambinos tell me otherwise), but I rest easy because I try my best.
Self discovery is not something that has to occur whilst on a year long trek through Tibet.

5) Finding ‘The One’.
Don’t believe? That’s fine. I do. I’m still with him 21 years later. AND (head back up to #2) I’m still in love.

6) Self-acceptance.
This often pairs with self discovery. There’s no point discovering who you are if you then can’t accept the discovery. You should spend every day trying to be a better person. Not because you think it might make others happy. Not because you believe in karma and good things will come your way if you do. You should do so for yourself.
I’m a huge enforcer of the saying: the first person who has to love you is you. Love yourself (not your appearance, but your inner self, your soul), and then the rest will come.

7) Battles of life and overcoming them.
This is another one that can go from the tiniest of references to something really grand scale.
Bottom end: A bill comes in. You can’t quite afford to pay it. Being a responsible adult with a house to keep over your head, you find a way to get that bill paid and ensure your kids don’t have to read their books by candlelight (because there’s no electricity for the TV).
Right at the freakin’ top end: You lose someone you love. Most people have had this kind of tragedy to deal with. Some deal better than others. However you manage (or don’t) to cope with this kind of trauma in your life, you are fighting a battle to come out the other end with as much of yourself still intact as possible.

8 ) Going to the ends of the earth …
I’m a parent. What more is there to say?

9) Emotions.
Yeah, I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of these. My moods can plummet from stupidly happy to a state of zombification within minutes. I’ve been up and down, and dealt with it any way I can at the time. I won’t go into all the different emotions, but just know … I’ve BTDT!

And there it was. A few written words. A few moments careful consideration. And I realised …
I’ve been ‘writing what I know’ all along.
It’s all the other stuff around this lot that I make up.

How about you? How do your life experiences bleed into your writing?

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12 thoughts on “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW!

  1. Julie, this is, by far, my favorite post. Beautifully written 🙂 I did the same thing: wanted to write outside of what I was familiar with. It is a lot of work and in the genre that we write, in particular, part of the challenge is making it believable; making people want to live the life of the MC. So I too went back to writing what I know.
    I believe in fate, finding the one, and many of the points you’ve included here. The interesting thing is how different one writer’s experience might be from another’s 😉 looking forward to reading your spin on it when the book comes out! Great post. Will def tweet!

  2. I actually used the East coast as the setting for my newest novel. There is a very distinct accent in the small town that I write about. I wouldn’t have even considered using this place as the setting if my sister hadn’t been living there at the time. She was able to provide pictures of the town and clips of the accent. She was also able to verify certain details. It’s a lot of work!

    1. It is a huge amount of work. However, overcoming that kind of challenge just adds reward to the end result and makes it all worthwhile. When/If I write this novel, I have every intention of setting it where I know someone who lives there and will provide me with all the detail I need. 🙂

  3. I’ve used the phrase ‘write what you know’ and have gotten crucified for saying it. It’s not a matter of what you’ve done in your life by that phrase (though it plays some part). It’s a matter of the knowledge you get when researching.

    Want your character to live on the mountainside in Japan? Research the area and pick a spot. Dig deeper if you have to. Then you’re writing what you know. Hell, I’ve poured over maps of the New York metro system to see how long it takes to get from point A to point B.

    It only takes one good bullshit meter for things to go off the deep end. That’s why I liked your devotion to seek out an area and get the lay of the land.

    1. You’re absolutely right. And too many people forget that you know what you take the time to learn. I fully intend to knock this story out at some point (once all the others in my head have made way for it to push forth), and I still very much intend to set it in the US.
      Thanks, Kastil 🙂

  4. What a great way to turn an ‘industry’ saying on its head. I ‘write what know’ then all the time too. The fact that my characters are shape-shifters? Well … oops … gotta run … white coats are coming! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh! 🙂 🙂

  5. What a wonderful, thought provoking post. When you really think, it’s amazing what experiences you draw on to add flavour to your writing.

  6. Werewolves in Solihull?! *gigglesnort*

    A lovely post and I even agree with a lot of it except for destiny / fate. To give quote “there is no fate but what we make ourselves”.

    Big congo rats on the release of the book, though!

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