On Friday I posed the question: Write what you know; good or bad advice? I invited Enchanted Spark readers to comment so I could post the replies on Sunday. I got four great answers. I’ll add my thoughts at the bottom. Here they are:
I’m always back and forth on this idea, because I feel it can go both ways.
I prefer saying “write what you love” because when a writer creates something they are passionate about, it tends come through on the page. However, I often hear the advice to “read as much as you can in the particular subgenre you want to write” – implying to write what you know – but I find sometimes this has a negative effect and creates more of a derivative work than an original idea.
Personally, I like taking some from both pots – what I know and what I don’t. Writing what I know gives the project confidence and passion, while including elements that need research tends to brings a sense of “newness” to the idea.
I think write what you know is pretty good advice but I’d fine tune it to write what you like because there is always research. Of course, where sci-fi and fantasy come in, nobody really knows that stuff, it’s whatever you dream up. Sci-fi, though, has to sound feasible.
I agree with a lot that was just said. I see it as a two pronged form of advice. Write what you know keeps one from sounding like a fool. But it is also a reminder that what is familiar and enjoyed is much easier to get on a page.
But the call to write what you know should never scare anyone away from branching out into any genre that might interest them. The level of research an author is prepared to pour into a project is not a direct correlation to its success. It might only determine where it might get shelved in a bookstore.
Say an author plans to use Mark Twain as a character in a fiction story. An expert on Twain can likely craft a historical fiction full of intricate details of his life. An alternate history or historical fantasy can take a very detailed knowledge of Twain but change some the situations of his biography and free themselves from the finer nuances of his history. But then there are stories that rely more on the character of Twain that he has become in popular culture, and an author with less research can place him in a straight up fantasy. Each story would require the author to “Know” Twain, but the comfort of that knowledge can create very different and still successful books. And in every case the reader would likely be comfortable they are reading about Mark Twain.
We can leave it to the few esoteric scholars to complain that Twain would not address Merlin in such a manner as he does in your story, but then you didn’t write Twain-upon-Avon for them anyway. Write what you know: A good story.
“Write what you know” is good advice, but not a rule to follow blindly or exclusively. (An art teacher once taught me to learn the rules and then break them. I think this works here too.)
We’re more likely to put our passion and personalities in something we know. For me, the words flow more easily. The words have more life. And I don’t run as much risk of having written a piece where readers think, “wow, what an idiot, that author knows nothing about xyz.”
When writing fantasy or science fiction, such as a story about dragons, I think the rule can still apply. Writers can (and maybe should) have some idea of what else is out there even if the topic isn’t factual or realistic. One can write what one knows about dragons from other stories but also what one knows in one’s heart.
At a certain point, a writer should bring something new. We don’t want to read the same stories over and over again (at least not too similar anyway). Research brings new topics to life and new life into old topics.
The problem I have with the advice is when it comes to publishing. I feel people say “write what you know” with a certain amount of smugness like that’s the golden key to being published. But what if what you know or love is something a million other writers are sending to editors and agents? What if you’re writing vampire stories at the tale end of the vampire fad because you love vampires and that’s all you want to write? Agents and editors are tired of vampires so your story will most likely be past over.
Or worse, what if what you love is something no one else loves? I think satyrs are pretty interesting mythological characters, and I have a satyr story I can’t sell to save my life. I realize the first few incarnations of the story were terrible, but as I honed it, it became one of those “We like it, but it’s not what we’re publishing now” stories. Satyrs aren’t a thing. But I really love that character I created.
I find myself constantly torn between what I want to write and what I think other people want to read. It’s a very tricky balance.