Write what you know?

One of the most commonly asked questions of any writer is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I cannot imagine how tired Steven King, J.K. Rowling, and Nora Roberts are of this question. I’m not even published yet, and I have gotten pretty close to tired of it.

Because it is asked so often, most of us have a standard answer that suits us and our writing style. Mine is that my stories are largely character driven, and usually start with a conversation in my head. When voices start talking to me in my head I talk back, and I’ve chosen to see that as inspiration, no matter what my brother says.

One standard answer that is often very dissatisfying for a starting writer is the title of this blog post. One of the reasons that it is so dissatisfying to hear, “write what you know,” is that many of us read and write to get away from what we know. We read to explore our world and other worlds that were created by great minds. We write to explore new ideas and spaces that we can’t explore any other way.

House wives are famous for watching soap operas and reading romance novels because their own lives are not nearly so seedy and interesting. Half of the people I know have a two syllable answer to the question, “What’s new with you?” So why would we want to be so boring as to write what we already know?

Largely, this is even a saying because of psychology. Humans are inclined to mirror themselves in their creations, whether it’s adding their own nose (or most of his face) to the Mona Lisa, or just putting their own favorite phrase into a piece of dialogue. We connect with our creations to a degree that we put ourselves into those characters and situations whether we intend to or not. For some, it is a purposeful exercise in self reflection and some it’s just a way to get a walk-on in a blockbuster movie.

Also, one of the reasons why reading is so very interesting to people is because we like to try to get into other peoples’ heads. This might be more of a result than a cause, but it might cause readers who become writers to understand on some level that we need to put something in there that shows our readers a glimpse of our own twisted pathways and dusty corridors.

That’s not even touching the concrete reasons of reliability, originality, good details, authenticity, and accuracy to name a few. And it’s not to say that you have to be a complete expert on something before you can write about it, either. Some of the most interesting books to write are those of discovery, and research is half the fun for a lot of writers. But you should know something about the French Revolution before you write an entire plot and plop a character right in the middle of it.

So when writing teachers say, ‘write what you know,’ we don’t mean that you can only write about working mothers of two who are trying to finish their first novel, or college students who are trying desperately to graduate and finish a thesis, but it’s a good idea to work with ideas and concepts that are not completely out of your realm of expertise. After all, you’re the only you, and your take on something isn’t any one else’s.

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