Write What You Know…
It’s a phrase attributed to Mark Twain but I’m not sure what he meant by it. I don’t want to speculate on his thoughts. I just want to take the phrase and dissect it. See what its insides look like, dig for any value, sift through the interpretations.
How can we write what we know? In non-fiction, this seems like a valuable approach. We don’t want to learn how to be happy from angry people. It doesn’t make sense to write about building things if all you have ever built is a sandwich. We certainly don’t want to hear financial advice from a person in debt. You get the idea.
Yet, in fiction, it seems like we must write what we don’t know. How boring would fiction be if we didn’t? We’d be severely limited by writing about our singular existence. Isn’t the point of fiction to do more than the ordinary and to reach into the extraordinary? If we can’t imagine a better existence, how can we create one? We can create worlds with alien creatures, out of body experiences, incredible adventures that change who we are, or worlds where peace reigns. The possibilities are endless. The world would be sad if we confined ourselves to only what we know.
With that being said, there are some grains of truth within this phrase that do apply to fiction. We need to be cautious and learn about the worlds we create. We must make our fictional worlds believable, and in order to do that, you have to create them and know them in your mind. If you don’t bother to do that, your readers won’t either.
We can’t just imagine what it’s like to be a person completely different from us. We must research things to make them believable. We have to be astute observers of the world around us to create characters that seem real. If you’ve never heard a person from the south talk, you will probably ruin their accent in your writing. If you’ve never stepped outside your own experience to imagine the experience of others, you may never reach the full potential of your character creation. Research to know your fiction and it will be more powerful.
So, to avoid creating books where we’re given bad directions and false information or offered flimsy fiction with no backbone of consistency and sense, we do need to heed Twain’s advice. Then, on the other hand, we need to reach deep into our creativity to give life to things that are new and interesting. Those things we create we should know intimately by fleshing out our world and characters to create believable fiction. The answer to Twain’s advice, like many things, lies in the middle.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this phrase. Please share.