I’m sure a lot of you have heard the quote “Write what you know.” I believe Mark Twain originally said it.
Well, I hate to go against a well known saying by a prestigious author, but I don’t think it’s a quote writers should live by, even though I believe it does make sense to some extent.
Well, I just wrote this whole blog post explaining why, so keep your hair on.
Let’s start with taking Twain’s little piece of advice seriously … and literally. Let’s say you, as a writer, decided to follow the tip, and started writing only what you knew. You came up with a pretty good story. Fantastic. Job well done. This means that this story is completely and wholly yours, it originated from your own thoughts and knowledge about the world. No one else influenced you besides what your mind already stored up. Great.
But this also means you didn’t do any research. You didn’t explore. You didn’t ask for help. And You most likely didn’t write a fantasy or science fiction novel.
Because writing a fantasy or science fiction novel or any kind of speculative fiction is basically writing what you don’t know. Writing in this genre means doing lots of research. It means using inspiration that you look for and find in books, movies, music, the news, other people, etc. You’re reading articles on diseases, basic econimcs, spaceship terminology and weapon diagrams. You’re writing about things that could never happen in real life like space, time travel, wizards, magic, whatever you usually find in a fantasy or sci-fi novel, and all of this goes completely against what you knew before. You’re learning things about reality as you incorporate them into your novel, but you’re also making up stuff. You’re delving into the world of the unknown to create different worlds, different creatures, different types of magic and powers. Did you know any of this? No. You’re writing what you don’t know. And it’s fun.
So, am I telling you to write speculative fiction? After all, the title of the post says “Don’t write what you know.”
Well, that isn’t the point. No matter what genre you’re working on, there’s plenty of room to write things you don’t know. And you could have a lot of fun with that, even writing realistic stories about real-ife people in the mundane world we live in. You’re going to have to do some research to add to your knowledge, but you’re also going to explore. You’re going to be writing about people you don’t know, things you didn’t know, you’ll be writing a whole story you didn’t know beforehand, even.
The point is to explore. Write outside the box. Try new things. Come up with your own ideas that no one has ever come up with and don’t be afraid to. If you’re used to doing it the other way, try writing a bunch of nonsense. Things that you wouldn’t believe could actually happen, and you’ll be writing things you never knew about. If you’ve never written that way, I suggest you try it. It’s a lot of fun and you’ll even discover things about real life along the way. Dig in. Write what you don’t know, and you won’t want to go back.(Guaranteed.)
Mark Twain wrote outside the box. He explored. He wrote books about traveling back into time: Heck, he wrote about a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court! So in the end, write what you know. But you’re also going to have to explore the unknown. Dive in. Just don’t keep your sanity in check because us writers. We just don’t do sane.
How do you write? Do you know everything you write? Or do you write of things you’ve never known about and take the time to explore while doing it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic, even if you’re not a writer, and all your agreements or disagreements. In the meantime, thanks for reading. I owe you a spot of tea.