It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice. Write what you know. But what does it mean? That you can only write about crime if you’re a police officer (or a criminal?!)? That you can only write about falling in love with a stranger in Paris if you’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt? I’m sure you’ll all agree that’s not what it means at all. Not all fiction is fantasy, but all fiction is…well…fictional! And that gives you endless possibilities and freedom. BUT, for the sake of advice, here are some of my Do’s and Dont’s of writing what you know.
Do use real experiences
Writing what you know doesn’t mean you have to have experienced the same things as your characters. You don’t have to be a murderer to write a murder mystery (in fact, I strongly advise against this in any situation!), nor do you need to live in a New York City apartment overlooking Central Park to set your story there. However, in all writing, your own personal experiences will shape your work. Use the emotions you have felt, the places you’ve seen, thoughts you’ve had, and people you’ve encountered. This adds authenticity to your work, making it relatable and true.
Don’t limit yourself
Sure, you should draw from your experiences, but don’t limit yourself to only them. Writing is about freedom and passion, about imagination and innovation. Don’t let this ‘rule’ limit you. Your story is exactly that…yours. Any boundaries are put in place by you, which means you can knock them down if you need to.
If you’re writing about things you don’t know, simply do some research. There are so many ways to research, especially with the internet at our finger tips. Read essays and articles, watch documentaries and interviews, speak to people, ask for feedback, listen to speeches and talks. Not only does this add credibility to your work, but you’ll learn so much along the way. Before you know it, the things you didn’t known will become the things you do know now.
Don’t make assumptions or uneducated guesses
This ties in directly with the point above. Stories are stories, and most readers will forgive a bit of poetic licence if it makes the book more exciting. But making wild guesses could not only annoy readers, but offend them too. This is especially true when writing about difficult topics such as grief, discrimination, mental health and physical illness. It can be insensitive to get the facts wrong.
Do use your unique insight
I love reading a book with all the unique inside knowledge of somebody who knows. There’s such a richness to it. A detective series written by an ex-detective, for example. Use your insight to add depth to your characters, your settings and your plot. These can be drawn from a job you’ve had, a lifestyle you experienced, a challenge you’ve overcome or a struggle you’ve pushed through. Not only will you be able to write the story with your inside knowledge, the reader will enjoy a glimpse of something they may not have otherwise known.
Don’t be too niche
If you are writing about things relating to your own life, best not to be too niche. You could cut any chance of connection with your readers by focusing on something the vast majority can’t relate to. Make sure you give away enough description and explanation to be captivating and interesting. If you use inside terminology, vague descriptions or cryptic messages your readers may lose all interest or become bored right away.