Writing What You Know

Conventional wisdom tells writers to write what they know. Which makes a sort of sense, because how can you write something that you know absolutely nothing about? The problem with that approach is that I don’t know very much. I’m well-educated, sure, but as far as life experiences go, I’m a little short. I’ve done some travel, and moved around a bit, but nothing that would be overly interesting in a story.

In addition, I write in a fantasy genre. One with magic, and fantastic creatures, and epic adventures, not to mention a completely different world. If I were to only write what I know, I wouldn’t be able to create a story like that. I could write about a dietitian who goes to work every day and watches TV in the evenings, but that would be an incredibly boring character. Other genres face the same issue. How many authors do you think are spies for the CIA, or have murdered someone, or have turned into a superhero? How can they write a story like that if they haven’t experienced it?

I don’t remember where I heard the phrase, but I think it’s much more sound advice. Write what you can learn. Through the power of the internet, I can research jobs, hobbies, far away locations, history. I can learn anything I want to. Example: in my current fantasy project, I attach my protagonist to a tanner as an apprentice. I’m not a tanner. I don’t know any tanners. But I read many articles on the subject, including the materials they used, the process of tanning, even maps on how tanneries were laid out. I’ll never be an expert, but it gave me the background to be able to create a (hopefully believeable) character who is a tanner.

Another thing I do is read. A lot. Sometimes obsessively (check out this post about my love of library books). I’ve been reading fantasy books since middle school, at least (I don’t remember much of what I read in elementary school, so maybe further back than that). Every story is different, and every author is different, but in reading so many of them I have a pretty good feel for the aspects of a fantasy book. I’ve lived these stories, and loved these characters, and I can use those experiences just as much as my own to shape my stories.

Some experiences transcend circumstances, and can be incorporated into any story. I’ve fallen in love, had my heart broken, experienced loss, moved away from home at a young age. I’ve been terrified of change, and had my dreams crushed, and been overjoyed. The circumstances don’t matter. I know those feelings, and I can impart them to my characters, molding them into who  I want them to be.

So, I kind of write what I know. And I kind of don’t. Thoughts? I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

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