Write what you know.
That's probably the most misleading advice any writer can get. It builds walls in the writer's mind, imposing artificial limitations bred of uncertainty. How many writers, hearing those four words, have despaired? Those leading quiet, normal -- boring -- lives no doubt think that nothing of interest happens to them; if they are limited to writing within the parameters of their own life, why bother? A laundry list would be as interesting.
How can what you know make an interesting story?
Maybe before asking how, we should first ask why. Why, in a world of Star Wars, The Exorcist and Dracula, are we told to write what we know?
Because none of those stories would have worked, if there weren't enough of our real lives in them to make them believable. If there was nothing that the reader or viewer could identify with in those stories, they would not have succeeded.
Who has ever experienced a stellar dog fight? Do you think anyone has ever actually seen a girl's head turn around, or staked a vampire? Were George Lucas, William Peter Blatty and Bram Stoker following the advice "write what you know" when they wrote their stories?
What you know isn't always what you see around you. It's not just the material life you live. You know a lot more than that.
For instance, you know what frightens you. You know how you feel when you're afraid. It's this knowledge you draw upon to make your stories believable to others: your fear of dark places, of the unknown, of pain and death -- primal emotions that everyone shares. If it frightens you, it will likely frighten others. Likewise with love, happiness, sadness, anger -- the full range of emotions common to all people. You know both what prompts these feelings, and how you feel when experiencing them -- what you think, how you react and what happens to your body while under the influence of those feelings. This is the knowledge you draw upon to make your stories real for others.
What else do you know? Well, you feel more than emotions. You know how the sun feels on your shoulders, how ice feels in your mouth, how your knees felt when you fell and scraped them as a child. You know what your senses tell you, and other people share those sensations -- tell readers that the paper cut stung, and they will immediately know how it feels, and thus what your character feels. Readers will identify with your character.
So far, by simply drawing upon what you and everyone else know, you've created a rapport between the reader and your character; you've identified the stimuli that trigger emotions in you and your readers and used it to make your setting, your characters, your story line come alive. All while sitting in front of a computer in outer suburbia.
Now that you've got the hang of this "write what you know" business, you'll realize that the situations in which you find yourself experiencing these things don't have to be translated literally to the page. Remember Star Wars. Direct transliteration certainly didn't happen there!
So, you take what you know and give it a twist. Filter it through your imagination before that knowledge hits the page. Here's one twist I made, to illustrate:
Standing on the edge of a cenote (a limestone sinkhole filled with water) reputed to have been used for Mayan sacrifices a thousand years past, I felt an inexplicable sense of dread, a feeling that crawled up between my shoulder blades and left me with the urgent need to step back, away from the cenote's edge. This, despite being surrounded by other tourists also looking at an innocuous pool of water on a sunny day.That experience -- the sense of foreboding, that there was something evil lying below the surface of the water, even the sunny day -- became the pivotal scene in a "ghost story" I later wrote. Although the setting was on another world, far in the future, the details I used from my experience made the setting, even the situation, seem plausible.
Don't neglect the other thing you know -- the people around you. Yes, Harry's an insurance agent and Madeline is a housewife; what could you possibly find to write about these people? Maybe Harry has this nervous habit of tapping a pencil against his teeth while he thinks. And Madeline's whole face changes when she smiles -- suddenly, that average, everyday housewife is beautiful. These details that make the people you know so familiar to you will also make your characters familiar to your readers. Give one of them your Uncle Bob's staccato chuckle, or your best friend's father's unusual penchant for knitting, and your characters will be remembered for much longer than the cliche character who is merely shifty-eyed or the little old lady who knits in her rocker.
The people around you don't have to lend their habits or traits only to contemporary stories, of course. Use them to make characters in stories set in the past or the future come alive, too. Writing a story with a historical setting? You've done your research -- another form of "knowing," by the way -- and now you know all about the physical aspects of your chosen time period. You know what was fashionable and their level of technology and so on. You've researched more abstract concepts -- religious and political ideology, perhaps. How people were governed and by what prominent historical figures. But all of this treats the people of your time period en masse, as faceless members of an overall society, and your story contains individuals, characters you want the reader to believe in and care about and empathize with. You need to know how a peasant woman three hundred years ago felt, how she behaved, what she thought. How do you get inside the heads of people who lived a thousand years ago, say, and make them real today?
Again, you know how those around you feel and think and behave. People are people, no matter where or when. Even if your characters are aliens living in another galaxy, you are going to have to give them traits that humans -- your readers -- can identify with, so the story will work. No matter when they will live or have lived, all will have experienced love, fear, hate, curiosity, just as you do. So, again, take what you know and filter it through your imagination -- or through the knowledge gleaned in your research. Your historical characters may believe that their ailments are caused by evil spirits or bad humors, but they will feel the same pain and fear that you do. They will love their families just like you love yours.
Now, next time you hear "write what you know," you'll realize that you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story's success. It's waiting only to be shaped by your imagination.
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