Write What You Know

The advice to “write what you know” makes sense on surface. If you know a lot about something you’ll theoretically describe it and write about it with more authenticity and realism. On the other hand, the advice seems so limiting. What if you don’t “know” anything all that interesting? What if, like so many people, you’re just an ordinary person that goes about your average life, making a living, having a family, and being “normal”? (Not that I would ever suggest that there is such a thing as “normal”…)

Well, I have some good news. For those of us that want to write about things that are slightly outside of things that we could realistically “know” (Amazons are real, right? Witches, too? What about Phoenixes?) there’s another way to approach this advice.

I’m a member of Romance Writers of America. At one of my past monthly meetings the woman leading the session had us do an exercise that I think can help focus your attention as a writer. The goal of the exercise was to find out what your “thing” was. What is it that you write about? What themes do you follow? What tropes do you like? What do you enjoy reading and watching, because chances are, that’s what you’ll enjoy writing.

The exercise starts with writing down your five favorite TV shows, movies, and/or books. What is it that you can’t live with out? What books would you take to a desert island? What TV show will you always watch if it shows up on TV, even if you’ve see every episode of it already?

The second step is best done with a partner or a team, but if you don’t have access to others, you can make do and brainstorm yourself. The idea is to figure out what common themes, ideas, and actions happen in each story that you wrote down.

Using myself as an example, I would write down that my favorite TV shows are things like Buffy, Charmed, Warehouse 13, Castle, and Chuck. For books, I’d have to start with Harry Potter (books 1-7 all lumped into one, of course), with the Percy Jackson series coming in second place. I also love Nora Roberts, especially the ones with a paranormal angle. For movies, I like almost anything Marvel (though I’ll fully admit that some are better than others).

Based on my list above, I think it’s pretty obvious that I like paranormal stories, and probably obvious that I like action as well. Looking deeper, though, there’s a more subtle theme that shows up in many of those stories, and that’s the idea of a strong female lead. A woman that can take care of herself and others, and doesn’t have to be the damsel in distress. It’s also important to me that the roles aren’t totally reversed. I like my heroines and heroes to be equally matched, or at least fairly close to equally matched.

I probably could have told you at the start of the exercise that my theme was based around strong women, or as I’ve said elsewhere that “Women can be heroes too.” It’s comforting to realize that the things I enjoy reading and watching agree with what I believe the theme of my writing to be.

It’s also useful to realize that even though I am not a witch or a superhero (more’s the pity…), I’m still writing what I know. It’s good to realize that all the time I spend reading and watching TV and movies isn’t a waste, it’s research (okay, let’s be honest, some of it is just a waste of time…). How can you know how to correctly capture vampires in a story, unless you know the myths and the tropes that surround them? You don’t have to adhere to them fully (see: sparkling vampires), but you have at least be aware of what you’re breaking when you do it.

Which goes back to “Write what you know”. It’s still good advice, even for people that write about things that aren’t exactly of this world. We just put our own spin on it.