The other day, I was brainstorming with a friend over a story I was stuck on. I didn’t like the original idea I’d come up with and I wanted something new. In the process of doing this (which worked out very well) I mentioned that I would like to set the story in a small town, because I spent most of my life in a small town and it’s easy to write. That got me thinking about something.
Specifically, that age-old writer’s adage that you’ve probably heard a thousand times:
Write what you know.
The thing about ‘write what you know’ is that it’s a much more complex piece of advice than it seems on the surface, and some writers might not really understand what it means at all. How can you take advice that doesn’t even make sense to you?
Taken at face value, ‘write what you know’ sounds like you should never write about places you’ve never visited, jobs you’ve never had, and skills you’ve never acquired. But we know this isn’t true. You can do research, there’s a lot of information out there, and you can write faithfully about things you don’t ‘know.’ I’m going to break this piece of advice down into two simpler parts: write what you love, and write what’s easy.
If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you know that a disproportionate amount of his books are set in Maine (where he lives) with protagonists who are either writers or teachers (which he was). This doesn’t mean he doesn’t write about other places and professions. But he loves Maine, and of course, he loves writing.
A disproportionate amount of my work is set in Chicago or references it because I love Chicago. I don’t live there, I never have. I’ve visited it many times but not enough to say I ‘know’ Chicago like someone who was born and grew up there. But I love it, and putting in the research to write about it is a delight. When you love what you’re writing about it comes through the words.
On the other hand, writing what you know can also mean writing what’s easy. I grew up in a small town and spent a good portion of my adult life there, so I understand the dynamics of a small town. Therefore, if I want to focus on the characters and not have to put any effort into the background or world building, I set it in a small town, because the backdrop comes easy to me. Likewise, I have characters who are bartenders and servers because I’ve worked in bars and restaurants for nearly a decade and I don’t have to think about their job. Their profession is easy to write about and I don’t have to put any extra work in, if I want to focus more tightly on other aspects of the story.
So ‘write what you know’ can also mean write what you love, and write what’s easy. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever write about places and professions that are completely exotic to you–as I said, there is a wealth of information out there, and it’s always fun to learn something new anyway.
Write what you know can mean a lot of things. What does it mean to you?