Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
If you've heard any piece of writing advice in your lifetime, I'm guessing it's this one. Maybe like me you can't think of a single time outside of a classroom door when you were given this advice in a serious context. I certainly don't know any creative writers who do anything but scoff at the idea that writers should stick to what we know.
But I think it's good advice. Whether you write science fiction or contemporaries or poetry, I think the answer is yes, you should write what you know.
Here's what I mean:
Write what [emotions] you know:
The emotions of characters are what draw most people into a story. Maybe it's an emotion that we wish we had, like when Frodo is brave and says he'll return the ring. Or sometimes it's experiencing someone's heartbreak that draws us to them, like with Peter in the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy.
You can create that for your readers too, even if you've never mustered the bravery to go on a long, perilous journey or watched your mother die as a young child. By tapping into the emotional experiences you've had—bravely walking into a new school, having a friend move away, watching your parents go through a divorce—you can apply those to the situations your characters are in. That's how writers who have never been abducted by aliens/been a pregnant teenager/been falsely accused of murder can write those situations in a way that feels emotionally accurate. Jill wrote a great post about that here.
Write what [facts] you know:
I'm sure she thought she could make it up because she was writing fiction, so what did it matter if a few details aren't exactly right?
This is a tough balance. Yes, we're writing fiction. But part of the magic of creating a storyworld is making it feel like a real, logical place. The ways you do that vary based on genre. For example, if you wrote a contemporary novel and your character didn't have a cell phone, you would need to explain why. But wouldn't it feel strange for Harry Potter to pull out his iPhone and call Dumbledore? Even though it's set in contemporary times, wizards using cell phones would somehow violate the storyworld.
While we never want our research to trump the story (by which I mean writing passages that show off how much research you did on a certain topic) getting our facts right help the readers escape to the world we've created.
Write what [stories] you know:
When I first started to pursue publication, I decided to write serious literature. The kind packed with symbolism that you would study in your English class. The problem was I didn't have ideas for serious literature type novels. Every idea I had was for young adult novels, even before I really knew that was a genre.
Can you imagine how frustrated a person I would be if I had decided I wasn't going to write the kind of stories I wanted, but rather the kind of stories I thought I should want to write?
I wanted to write serious literature because I wanted others to be impressed with me. But when I've written YA stories, it's been because those stories felt like they were a part of me. Like they were an outpouring of my heart. They were stories that I felt like I'd been given, that I felt like I knew.
Stephen King puts it this way: "I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that's all. If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have."
That quote sends a resounding yes through my writer's heart, how about you?
At it's core, writing what you know is really about telling the truth. Digging deep into emotions and daring to put them on the page, embracing the research process instead of shrugging it off, and being true to the stories you're naturally drawn to, even if they don't seem like the "right" kind.