Write what you know. Limiting, isn’t it? Who wants to read about an ordinary day in an ordinary life in an ordinary town where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens? It’s just a recipe for dullness that won’t get you into the top 10 ‘Amazon Bestsellers: Banality’ subgenre, let alone catch the eye of an agent. It also seems to rule out the very existence of fantasy, science-fiction, and any even vaguely outlandish title. So why is it such a well-known and well used saying?
The fact is that you know a lot. Even if you have the most boring job, the most boring life in the world, you know a lot. You know how to feel, for one thing. You have beliefs and empathies and skills, no matter how esoteric. See, I think the saw ‘write what you know’ is totally misunderstood and misused. It doesn’t refer to your life story at all. It’s all about emotions.
You know how to love. You know how to fear. You know how to be angry and how it feels to run or to shout or maybe to smash pottery on a hard concrete floor. This is what you know. And writing what you know isn’t about repeating isolated snippets of information, it’s about taking strong emotions and transporting them into situations that are way beyond your life. It’s why I treasure moments where I can say ‘oh, so that’s how it feels.’ Because then you can take that little snowglobe of feeling, wrap it up somewhere safe and warm, and then put your feelings of helplessness and isolation into the middle of a grand space opera, or below the deepest sea, or…
Imagine you’re on a bus, or on the underground. You’re going for a job interview, or for your first day at school. It’s crowded, hot (or cold) and noisy. Shoulders keep jostling you, shaking your grip on your bag. A few seats away a group of youths are playing some horrible tinny music, all bass and swagger. They’re laughing and you wonder whether it’s at you or at that girl across the aisle…
Now take that image and the feelings that it builds in you. Change the circumstances. Now you’re not on a bus but on a planetary shuttle coming in to deposit you and a bunch of soldiers onto an interstellar warzone. The situation’s completely different – but do the emotions differ? How so? Surely there’s something you can take from the one to use in the other. You’ll never be a crewmember on a 19th century whaler but you might know what it’s like to feel the knife-edge of terror and exhilaration as the deck pitches beneath you.
Congratulations. You just wrote what you know.
Your scenes can be the most alien, your characters the biggest bastards, it can all be terribly surreal and impossible. ‘What you know’ doesn’t refer to plot or setting; that’s a job for your reason and your imagination. But the way you bring these situations to life is to transplant your emotions into that world
No matter how implausible and impossible the situation, it is the heart that only you can bring that makes your voice cross centuries and your story come alive.