Write what you know.
That’s the writing advice many writers, including me, have received at the beginning of our careers. Really? Write what I know? Okay, let me think. What’s something I know and understand really well? There’s double sided accounting; I know the difference between a debit and a credit. I make great scrambled eggs. I know how to clean toilets.
Not a lot of story potential there.
The truth is I don’t know much. I don’t know how to pick a lock, or the symptoms of Lupus, or how spies were brought into occupied France during World War Two. Those are just some of the many things I’ve researched for my books. Fortunately, I don’t need to know details about a lot of things. I just need to know how to find the information I need.
That’s where I’ve put my effort – in learning how to research. I occasionally use books for my research. Sometimes I visit museums, or interview experts in a certain field. On occasion I’ve had the opportunity to visit a location to get a feel of a setting. But the main focus of my research is on the Internet. There is almost nothing I can’t find on the net. What did writers do before the age of the Internet? Research must have been a nightmare. I know a lot of writers bring expertise to their writing from former careers in law, medicine, the military, law enforcement and the like, but for many of us, the name of the game is research.
But there’s still a grain of truth in that old chestnut about writing what you know. The things I do know are emotional truths. I can understand how humiliating it must feel to be dumped at the altar. I can empathize with the character who doesn’t believe she’s attractive. I can feel the pain of a character who has a difficult relationship with her mother. I can understand those emotions, not because I’ve experienced those situations myself, but because, like many writers, I have the ability to put myself in that character’s shoes and feel what they would feel.
So I guess I do know a few things after all. Maybe the advice should be “Write what you feel” rather than “Write what you know”.
Are you writing what you know, or what you can discover?