One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever read was, “Write what you know.” I used to think I knew what that meant. I mean, if I read Science Fiction and Fantasy, then I clearly know those genres and should write in them, shouldn’t I?
So, the first novel I ever finished was a Fantasy novel. It turned out pretty good (in fact, it will be coming out in August this year), but it was a real slog to write. Was I missing something?
The second novel was much better, partially because I knew I could write a book at that point. But it was also a story I had thought about for years, roughly based on comic books (which I had also been reading for decades) with a character doing many of things I had long dreamed about. Talk about knowing the subject matter!
It was also a book I poured a lot of myself and my experiences into. Looking back on it, I think the inclusion of my own thoughts, feelings and experiences into the character more closely fits the whole “write what you know” advice.
What Do I Know, Really?
That was an issue for me growing up. I wanted to write but I didn’t think I had anything worth writing about. After all, who really cares what the life of a kid growing up on a farm miles/kilometers from the nearest neighbour is like?
It turns out, that growing up without close friends gave me experience in something that we all seem to share at one time or another. Loneliness. That one emotion gives me ties to my readers. It also turns out that every one of us has unique experiences that others are interested in learning about. We are a curious species and better understanding our fellow humans is an intellectual draw for many.
So, I could have written about what was unique in my life (how many of you have ever helped a mare give birth or seen a cesarean section performed on a cow?) and used our shared feelings to involve the readers. The fact that I was young didn’t matter.
How Can I Use My Experiences?
That is actually the easy and, to be honest, fun/therapeutic/emotional part of being a writer. When you put you own experiences on the page, you have the chance to relive them in your own memories. Draw from those memories to enrich the story and make your characters multi-dimensional.
There are times that injection of personal experience will make the writing hard. I have at least one story in me that I will eventually write that involve some of the negative things that have happened to my family. That’s okay. Remember the therapeutic part of writing I mentioned? That could be important to you.
Since coming to better understand the wisdom around “writing what you know”, I now realize I can write in any genre. People are people, after all, and emotions can be common between genres. You just have to place yourself in the story to better understand how the characters might react in situations.
Then you have a story that is interesting that has emotional resonance with your readers.