Friday, January 25, 2013

#2 "Write What You Know" - Best Writing Advice...Ever?

This is post 2 of my new blogging series, Myth Busting Writerly Quotes. The point of this series is to evaluate just how "legitimate" famous writing quotes are. If they are the real deal, I will Validate them. If they aren't, I'll Refute them. If they are almost there, I will Mine them (like Mining for gold. Hehe).


As I've mentioned many times, I am NOT  a fan of seeing anything as 100%, or absolute. So, when I say "Write What You Know" might be the MOST IMPORTANT WRITERLY ADVICE EVER, it's a big deal.

I cannot find a un-loophole-y example of when this rule is not applicable. If you want to write a book the reader gets lost it, this quote is there. If you want to write a realistic novel (and I do not mean just contemporary - fantasy as well), this quote is there. If you want to write a powerful novel, this quote is there.

                     Common Misconception Explained:

The beauty in "Write What You Know" does not lie in its literal interpretations.

So, so many people hate this quote. "It's so dumb. If we only wrote what we knew, then there would by no fantasy, sci-fi, or fiction at all. Because, duh, that stuff never happened. So we can't know it."

And with this, out goes one of the most precious writerly quotes ever.

This quote is so much more.

If you want to write a darn good fantasy, you sure as heck need to know your world to build a believable one. If you want a great mystery novel, historical fiction, contemporary, romance, etc., you sure as heck need to know the intricacies of the prison system, the flavor of the 1700's, the nuances of social networking, the logicality in romantic endeavors, etc.

It means: "If you don't know it now, you had better start learning."

What if JK Rowling didn't investigate the four founders of Hogwarts? No Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, or Ravenclaw for us. What if Dan Brown didn't look at a map of Rome for Angles and Demons? (yes, I know, his research wasn't the greatest, but let's face it: it could have been worse).

Fantasy, dystopian, and speculative fiction in general, are also great examples; all the facts are in your own head. You just have to find them. You have to know your world and its nuances to create a believable setting.

You have to get to know it.

The Other Incredibly Important Aspect of This Quote

I believe that emotions are one of the most important things to capture in a novel.  But how can you capture these emotions? The freaking quote.

Don't know how it feels like to be in debt? Well then, the best you can do is read every interview on poverty and try understanding the feeling. You cannot recreate the flavor of being in debt if you've never felt it. If you try without learning about it, it cheats the readers, and some of the readers might have been in debt themselves. Lack of authenticity is especially problematic in YA. Teens are the best when it comes to picking out falsities. Don't let them.

This is a bit depressing, because it means that no matter how much you, a wealthy millionaire, wish to write about a woman in debt, you won't be able to recreate it 100%. Think back to your journals, or diaries. Think about how hard it is to write that scene which mimics the worst event of your life. It feels different. More importantly: it reads differently.

So how can you write about that character you love?

There is a way to sidetrack that issue. Of course there is, and it has led to some of the most famous characters of all time. If there wasn't a way out, Victor Hugo wouldn't have written about the prostitute Fantine, desperate to save her child, or about Jean Valjean, arrested for stealing a loaf of bread.

The solution is "Show, don't tell." Don't rely solely on internal narratives in revealing the character's emotions. Show the character walk in the empty and cold house, not caring to turn up the heater. Show her stare into the fireplace with dead eyes. Show.

There is a solution to it. And, without a doubt, you can have an incredibly powerful novel without knowing how certain emotions feel. Fake it. Do not let it hold you back.

Other than in autobiographies, no realistic character is a carbon-copy of the author. The character is different and undergoes different things. The trick for the author is to understand and know what effects these things would have on the character.

In the end, the writer still has to know about the emotion. If you have a person laughing with joy after being kicked in the gut, either you have an awesome character, or a really fake one.

In fact, in my own novels (WIPs), the most emotional scenes are, for the most part, emotions I've never directly felt before. But I've felt it a bit; and from that, I can fake it.

A story of a prostitute would be more powerful coming from a prostitute herself, rather than a rich old man. But, your job is to understand the prostitute, and make sure you know her. And then: write what you know.

This quote has been VALIDATED.

What do you guys think?

(For those who care, I finished this post just shy of 1 am. I'mna sleep now :D)

After EB Black's comment, I've added a new caveat: One has to actively implement this knowledge in one's writing to make the most of this quote. Thanks for the comment, EB :D


  1. I think you just made a good argument for it! If we don't know it, learn it.

  2. I actually take this quote with a grain of salt now. While I research and research things I have no experience in and think it's important, I don't think having experience in an area means you are good at writing about it.

    I learned this when I wrote my novel, Medusa's Desire, and gave it to one of my critique partners. A character very close to Medusa dies in the novel and I kind of glazed over it before I received critiques. You have to understand that I've had several people very close to me die in my life. People I've lived with and seen every day. I know what the mourning process looks and feels like intimately, but I completely sucked at writing about it.

    In my critique partner's novel, he also had a character close to the main character die, but he wrote about the feelings that follow death more eloquently than me. He didn't know anyone that had died, but he was able to point out to me that I dealt with the issue in a flippant and unrealistic manner.

    I actually studied his novel for awhile and how exactly he handled the issue of death before I was able to write about it at all.

    I have no idea why this is. I should be great about writing about the grieving process because it's something I've gone through more than once, but instead, I've had to study it and think about it and try to write it better.

    When talking to people about the grieving process, I'm usually excellent at giving advice. When writing about it, I'm getting better.

  3. Excellent post. Much food for thought.

    Will tweet this :)

  4. This is definitely a handy-dandy post, one I'll file away, so I can revert back to the good info while writing. It seems like a no-brainer, but really, this takes a lot of thought and energy. :) Thanks for the reminder.

  5. You are absolutely correct in saying you have to "know" the world you are creating...whether it's Tattooine or 17th century England. I apply the same logic to characters: I *know* what all of my characters look like, how they hold themselves (do they fidget??), and how their voice sounds. It makes them real to me.

  6. It really is the most important writerly quote out there. I agree!